Towards the end of February Sir Peter Mancrudy declared Miss Stanbury to be out of danger, and Mr Martin began to be sprightly on the subject, taking to himself no inconsiderable share of the praise accruing to the medical faculty in Exeter generally for the saving of a life so valuable to the city. ‘Yes, Mr Burgess,’ Sir Peter said to old Barty of the bank, ‘our friend will get over it this time, and without any serious damage to her constitution, if she will only take care of herself.’ Barty made some inaudible grunt, intended to indicate his own indifference on the subject, and expressed his opinion to the chief clerk that old Jemima Wideawake as he was pleased to call her was one of those tough customers who would never die. ‘It would be nothing to us, Mr Barty, one way or the other,’ said the clerk; to which Barty Burgess assented with another grunt.
Camilla French declared that she was delighted to hear the news. At this time there had been some sort of a reconciliation between her and her lover. Mrs French had extracted from him a promise that he would not go to Natal; and Camilla had commenced the preparations for her wedding. His visits to Heavitree were as few and far between as he could make them with any regard to decency; but the 31st of March was coming on quickly, and as he was to be made a possession of them for ever, it was considered to be safe and well to allow him some liberty in his present condition. ‘My dear, if they are driven, there is no knowing what they won’t do,’ Mrs French said to her daughter. Camilla had submitted with compressed lips and a slight nod of her head. She had worked very hard, but her day of reward was coming. It was impossible not to perceive both for her and her mother that the scantiness of Mr Gibson’s attention to his future bride was cause of some weak triumph to Arabella. She said that it was very odd that he did not come and once added with a little sigh that he used to come in former days, alluding to those happy days in which another love was paramount. Camilla could not endure this with an equal mind. ‘Bella, dear,’ she said, ‘we know what all that means. He has made his choice, and if I am satisfied with what he does now, surely you need not grumble.’ Miss Stanbury’s illness had undoubtedly been a great source of contentment to the family at Heavitree, as they had all been able to argue that her impending demise was the natural consequence of her great sin in the matter of Dorothy’s proposed marriage. When, however, they heard from Mr Martin that she would certainly recover, that Sir Peter’s edict to that effect had gone forth, they were willing to acknowledge that Providence, having so far punished the sinner, was right in staying its hand and abstaining from the final blow. ‘I’m sure we are delighted,’ said Mrs French, ‘for though she has said cruel things of us and so untrue, too, yet of course it is our duty to forgive her. And we do forgive her.’
Dorothy had written three or four notes to Brooke since his departure, which contained simple bulletins of her aunt’s health. She always began her letters with ‘My dear Mr Burgess,’ and ended them with ‘yours truly.’ She never made any allusion to Brooke’s declaration of love, or gave the slightest sign in her letters to shew that she even remembered it. At last she wrote to say that her aunt was convalescent; and, in making this announcement, she allowed herself some enthusiasm of expression. She was so happy, and was so sure that Mr Burgess would be equally so! And her aunt had asked after her ‘dear Brooke,’ expressing her great satisfaction with him, in that he had come down to see her when she had been almost too ill to see anyone. In answer to this there came to her a real love-letter from Brooke Burgess. It was the first occasion on which he had written to her. The little bulletins had demanded no replies, and had received none. Perhaps there had been a shade of disappointment on Dorothy’s side, in that she had written thrice, and had been made rich with no word in return. But, although her heart had palpitated on hearing the postman’s knock, and had palpitated in vain, she had told herself that it was all as it should be. She wrote to him, because she possessed information which it was necessary that she should communicate. He did not write to her, because there was nothing for him to tell. Then had come the love-letter, and in the love-letter there was an imperative demand for a reply.
What was she to do? To have recourse to Priscilla for advice was her first idea; but she herself believed that she owed a debt of gratitude to her aunt, which Priscilla would not take into account — the existence of which Priscilla would by no means admit. She knew Priscilla’s mind in this matter, and was sure that Priscilla’s advice, whatever it might be, would be given without any regard to her aunt’s views. And then Dorothy was altogether ignorant of her aunt’s views. Her aunt had been very anxious that she should marry Mr Gibson, but had clearly never admitted into her mind the idea that she might possibly marry Brooke Burgess; and it seemed to her that she herself would be dishonest, both to her aunt and to her lover, if she were to bind this man to herself without her aunt’s knowledge. He was to be her aunt’s heir, and she was maintained by her aunt’s liberality! Thinking of all this, she at last resolved that she would take the bull by the horns, and tell her aunt. She felt that the task would be one almost beyond her strength. Thrice she went into her aunt’s room, intending to make a clean breast; Thrice her courage failed her, and she left the room with her tale untold, excusing herself on various pretexts. Her aunt had seemed to be not quite so well, or had declared herself to be tired, or had been a little cross or else Martha had come in at the nick of time. But there was Brooke Burgess’s letter unanswered, a letter that was read night and morning, and which was never for an instant out of her mind. He had demanded a reply, and he had a right at least to that. The letter had been with her for four entire days before she had ventured to speak to her aunt on the subject.
On the first of March Miss Stanbury came out of her bed-room for the first time. Dorothy, on the previous day, had decided on postponing her communication for this occasion; but, when she found herself sitting in the little sitting-room up stairs close at her aunt’s elbow, and perceived the signs of weakness which the new move had made conspicuous, and heard the invalid declare that the little journey had been almost too much for her, her heart misgave her. She ought to have told her tale while her aunt was still in bed. But presently there came a question, which put her into such a flutter that she was for the time devoid of all resolution. ‘Has Brooke written?’ said Miss Stanbury.
‘Yes aunt; he has written.’
‘And what did he say?’ Dorothy was struck quite dumb. ‘Is there anything wrong?’ And now, as Miss Stanbury asked the question, she seemed herself to have forgotten that she had two minutes before declared herself to be almost too feeble to speak. ‘I’m sure there is something wrong. What is it? I will know’
‘There is nothing wrong, Aunt Stanbury’
‘Where is the letter? Let me see it.’
‘I mean there is nothing wrong about him.’
‘What is it, then?’
‘He is quite well, Aunt Stanbury.’
‘Shew me the letter. I will see the letter. I know that there is something the matter. Do you mean to say you won’t shew me Brooke’s letter?’
There was a moment’s pause before Dorothy answered. ‘I will shew you his letter though I am sure he didn’t mean that I should shew it to anyone.’
‘He hasn’t written evil of me?’
‘No; no; no. He would sooner cut his hand off than say a word bad of you. He never says or writes anything bad of anybody. But Oh, aunt; I’ll tell you everything. I should have told you before, only that you were ill.’
Then Miss Stanbury was frightened. ‘What is it?’ she said hoarsely, clasping the arms of the great chair, each with a thin, shrivelled hand.
‘Aunt Stanbury, Brooke — Brooke wants me to be his wife!’
‘You cannot be more surprised than I have been, Aunt Stanbury; and there has been no fault of mine.’
‘I don’t believe it,’ said the old woman.
‘Now you may read the letter,’ said Dorothy, standing up. She was quite prepared to be obedient, but she felt that her aunt’s manner of receiving the information was almost an insult.
‘He must be a fool,’ said Miss Stanbury.
This was hard to hear, and the colour went and came rapidly across Dorothy’s cheeks as she gave herself a few moments to prepare an answer. She already perceived that her aunt would be altogether adverse to the marriage, and that therefore the marriage could never take place. She had never for a moment allowed herself to think otherwise, but, nevertheless, the blow was heavy on her. We all know how constantly hope and expectation will rise high within our own bosoms in opposition to our own judgment, how we become sanguine in regard to events which we almost know can never come to pass. So it had been with Dorothy. Her heart had been almost in a flutter of happiness since she had had Brooke’s letter in her possession, and yet she never ceased to declare to herself her own conviction that that letter could lead to no good result. In regard to her own wishes on the subject she had never asked herself a single question. As it had been quite beyond her power to bring herself to endure the idea of marrying Mr Gibson, so it had been quite impossible to her not to long to be Brooke’s wife from the moment in which a suggestion to that effect had fallen from his lips. This was a state of things so certain, so much a matter of course, that, though she had not spoken a word to him in which she owned her love, she had never for a moment doubted that he knew the truth and that everybody else concerned would know it too. But she did not suppose that her wishes would go for anything with her aunt. Brooke Burgess was to become a rich man as her aunt’s heir, and her aunt would of course have her own ideas about Brooke’s advancement in life. She was quite prepared to submit without quarrelling when her aunt should tell her that the idea must not be entertained. But the order might be given, the prohibition might be pronounced, without an insult to her own feelings as a woman. ‘He must he a fool,’ Miss Stanbury had said, and Dorothy took time to collect her thoughts before she would reply. In the meantime her aunt finished the reading of the letter.
‘He may be foolish in this,’ Dorothy said; ‘but I don’t think you should call him a fool.’
‘I shall call him what I please. I suppose this was going on at the time when you refused Mr Gibson.’
‘Nothing was going on. Nothing has gone on at all,’ said Dorothy, with as much indignation as she was able to assume.
‘How can you tell me that? That is an untruth.’
‘It is not an untruth,’ said Dorothy, almost sobbing, but driven at the same time to much anger.
‘Do you mean to say that this is the first you ever heard of it?’ And she held out the letter, shaking it in her thin hand.
‘I have never said so, Aunt Stanbury.’
‘Yes, you did.’
‘I said that nothing was going on, when Mr Gibson was —. If you choose to suspect me, Aunt Stanbury, I’ll go away. I won’t stay here if you suspect me. When Brooke spoke to me, I told him you wouldn’t like it.’
‘Of course I don’t like it.’ But she gave no reason why she did not like it.
‘And there was nothing more till this letter came. I couldn’t help his writing to me. It wasn’t my fault.’
‘If you are angry, I am very sorry. But you haven’t a right to be angry.’
‘Go on, Dorothy; go on. I’m so weak that I can hardly stir myself; it’s the first moment that I’ve been out of my bed for weeks and of course you can say what you please. I know what it will be. I shall have to take to my bed again, and then in a very little time you can both make fools of yourselves just as you like.’
This was an argument against which Dorothy of course found it to be quite impossible to make continued combat. She could only shuffle her letter back into her pocket, and be, if possible, more assiduous than ever in her attentions to the invalid. She knew that she had been treated most unjustly, and there would be a question to be answered as soon as her aunt should be well as to the possibility of her remaining in the Close subject to such injustice; but let her aunt say what she might, or do what she might, Dorothy could not leave her for the present. Miss Stanbury sat for a considerable time quite motionless, with her eyes closed, and did not stir or make signs of life till Dorothy touched her arm, asking her whether she would not take some broth which had been prepared for her. ‘Where’s Martha? Why does not Martha come?’ said Miss Stanbury. This was a hard blow, and from that moment Dorothy believed that it would be expedient that she should return to Nuncombe Putney. The broth, however, was taken, while Dorothy sat by in silence. Only one word further was said that evening by Miss Stanbury about Brooke and his love-affair. ‘There must be nothing more about this, Dorothy; remember that; nothing at all. I won’t have it.’ Dorothy made no reply. Brooke’s letter was in her pocket, and it should be answered that night. On the following day she would let her aunt know what she had said to Brooke. Her aunt should not see the letter, but should be made acquainted with its purport in reference to Brooke’s proposal of marriage.
‘I won’t have it!’ That had been her aunt’s command. What right had her aunt to give any command upon the matter? Then crossed Dorothy’s mind, as she thought of this, a glimmering of an idea that no one can be entitled to issue commands who cannot enforce obedience. If Brooke and she chose to become man and wife by mutual consent, how could her aunt prohibit the marriage? Then there followed another idea, that commands are enforced by the threatening and, if necessary, by the enforcement of penalties. Her aunt had within her hand no penalty of which Dorothy was afraid on her own behalf; but she had the power of inflicting a terrible punishment on Brooke Burgess. Now Dorothy conceived that she herself would be the meanest creature alive if she were actuated by fears as to money in her acceptance or rejection of a man whom she loved as she did Brooke Burgess. Brooke had an income of his own which seemed to her to be ample for all purposes. But that which would have been sordid in her, did not seem to her to have any stain of sordidness for him. He was a man, and was bound to be rich if he could. And, moreover, what had she to offer in herself, such a poor thing as was she, to make compensation to him for the loss of fortune? Her aunt could inflict this penalty, and therefore the power was hers, and the power must be obeyed. She would write to Brooke in a manner that should convey to him her firm decision.
But not the less on that account would she let her aunt know that she thought herself to have been ill-used. It was an insult to her, a most ill-natured insult that telling her that Brooke had been a fool for loving her. And then that accusation against her of having been false, of having given one reason for refusing Mr Gibson, while there was another reason in her heart, of having been cunning and then untrue, was not to be endured. What would her aunt think of her if she were to bear such allegations without indignant protest? She would write her letter, and speak her mind to her aunt as soon as her aunt should be well enough to hear it.
As she had resolved, she wrote her letter that night before she went to bed. She wrote it with floods of tears, and a bitterness of heart which almost conquered her. She too had heard of love, and had been taught to feel that the success or failure of a woman’s life depended upon that whether she did, or whether she did not, by such gifts as God might have given to her, attract to herself some man strong enough, and good enough, and loving enough to make straight for her her paths, to bear for her her burdens, to be the father of her children, the staff on which she might lean, and the wall against which she might grow, feeling the sunshine, and sheltered from the wind. She had ever estimated her own value so lowly as to have told herself often that such success could never come in her way. From her earliest years she had regarded herself as outside the pale within which such joys are to be found. She had so strictly taught herself to look forward to a blank existence, that she had learned to do so without active misery. But not the less did she know where happiness lay; and when the good thing came almost within her reach, when it seemed that God had given her gifts which might have sufficed, when a man had sought her hand whose nature was such that she could have leaned on him with a true worship, could have grown against him as against a wall with perfect confidence, could have lain with her head upon his bosom, and have felt that of all spots that in the world was the most fitting for her when this was all but grasped, and must yet be abandoned, there came upon her spirit an agony so bitter that she had not before known how great might be the depth of human disappointment. But the letter was at last written, and when finished was as follows:
‘The Close, Exeter, March 1, 186—.
There had been many doubts about this; but at last they were conquered, and the name was written.
‘I have shewn your letter to my aunt, as I am sure you will think was best. I should have answered it before, only that I thought that she was not quite well enough to talk about it. She says, as I was sure she would, that what you propose is quite out of the question. I am aware that I am bound to obey her; and as I think that you also ought to do so, I shall think no more of what you have said to me and have written. It is quite impossible now, even if it might have been possible under other circumstances. I shall always remember your great kindness to me. Perhaps I ought to say that I am very grateful for the compliment you have paid me. I shall think of you always till I die.
Believe me to be,
Your very sincere friend,
The next day Miss Stanbury again came out of her room, and on the third day she was manifestly becoming stronger. Dorothy had as yet not spoken of her letter, but was prepared to do so as soon as she thought that a fitting opportunity had come. She had a word or two to say for herself; but she must not again subject herself to being told that she was taking her will of her aunt because her aunt was too ill to defend herself. But on the third day Miss Stanbury herself asked the question. ‘Have you written anything to Brooke?’ she asked.
‘I have answered his letter, Aunt Stanbury.’
‘And what have you said to him?’
‘I have told him that you disapproved of it, and that nothing more must be said about it.’
‘Yes of course you made me out to be an ogre.’
‘I don’t know what you mean by that, aunt. I am sure that I told him the truth.’
‘May I see the letter?’
‘It has gone.’
‘But you have kept a copy,’ said Miss Stanbury.
‘Yes; I have got a copy,’ replied Dorothy; ‘but I would rather not shew it. I told him just what I tell you.’
‘Dorothy, it is not at all becoming that you should have a correspondence with any young man of such a nature that you should be ashamed to shew it to your aunt.’
‘I am not ashamed of anything,’ said Dorothy sturdily.
‘I don’t know what young women in these days have come to,’ continued Miss Stanbury. ‘There is no respect, no subjection, no obedience, and too often no modesty.’
‘Does that mean me, Aunt Stanbury?’ asked Dorothy.
‘To tell you the truth, Dorothy, I don’t think you ought to have been receiving love-letters from Brooke Burgess when I was lying ill in bed. I didn’t expect it of you. I tell you fairly that I didn’t expect it of you.’
Then Dorothy spoke out her mind. ‘As you think that, Aunt Stanbury, I had better go away. And if you please I will when you are well enough to spare me.’
‘Pray don’t think of me at all,’ said her aunt.
‘And as for love-letters, Mr Burgess has written to me once. I don’t think that there can be anything immodest in opening a letter when it comes by the post. And as soon as I had it I determined to shew it to you. As for what happened before, when Mr Burgess spoke to me, which was long, long after all that about Mr Gibson was over, I told him that it couldn’t be so; and I thought there would be no more about it. You were so ill that I could not tell you. Now you know it all.’
‘I have not seen your letter to him.’
‘I shall never shew it to anybody. But you have said things, Aunt Stanbury, that are very cruel.’
‘Of course! Everything I say is wrong.’
‘You have told me that I was telling untruths, and you have called me immodest. That is a terrible word.’
‘You shouldn’t deserve it then.’
‘I never have deserved it, and I won’t bear it. No; I won’t. If Hugh heard me called that word, I believe he’d tear the house down.’
‘Hugh, indeed! He’s to be brought in between us is he?’
‘He’s my brother, and of course I’m obliged to think of him. And if you please, I’ll go home as soon as you are well enough to spare me.’
Quickly after this there were many letters coming and going between the house in the Close and the ladies at Nuncombe Putney, and Hugh Stanbury, and Brooke Burgess. The correspondent of Brooke Burgess was of course Miss Stanbury herself. The letters to Hugh and to Nuncombe Putney were written by Dorothy. Of the former we need be told nothing at the present moment; but the upshot of all poor Dolly’s letters was, that on the tenth of March she was to return home to Nuncombe Putney, share once more her sister’s bed and mother’s poverty, and abandon the comforts of the Close. Before this became a definite arrangement Miss Stanbury had given way in a certain small degree. She had acknowledged that Dorothy had intended no harm. But this was not enough for Dorothy, who was conscious of no harm either done or intended. She did not specify her terms, or require specifically that her aunt should make apology for that word, immodest, or at least withdraw it; but she resolved that she would go unless it was most absolutely declared to have been applied to her without the slightest reason. She felt, moreover, that her aunt’s house ought to be open to Brooke Burgess, and that it could not be open to them both. And so she went having resided under her aunt’s roof between nine and ten months.
‘Good-bye, Aunt Stanbury,’ said Dorothy, kissing her aunt, with a tear in her eye and a sob in her throat.
‘Good-bye, my dear, good-bye.’ And Miss Stanbury, as she pressed her niece’s hand, left in it a bank-note.
‘I’m much obliged, aunt; I am indeed; but I’d rather not.’ And the bank-note was left on the parlour table.
Last updated Sunday, July 31, 2016 at 20:26