Miss Stanbury, looking out of her parlour window, saw Mr Gibson hurrying towards the cathedral, down the passage which leads from Southernhay into the Close. ‘He’s just come from Heavitree, I’ll be bound,’ said Miss Stanbury to Martha, who was behind her.
‘Like enough, ma’am.’
‘Though they do say that the poor fool of a man has become quite sick of his bargain already.’
‘He’ll have to be sicker yet, ma’am,’ said Martha.
‘They were to have been married last week, and nobody ever knew why it was put off. It’s my belief he’ll never marry her. And she’ll be served right, quite right.’
‘He must marry her now, ma’am. She’s been buying things all over Exeter, as though there was no end of their money.’
‘They haven’t more than enough to keep body and soul together,’ said Miss Stanbury. ‘I don’t see why I mightn’t have gone to service this morning, Martha. It’s quite warm now out in the Close.’
‘You’d better wait, ma’am, till the east winds is over. She was at Puddock’s only the day before yesterday, buying bed-linen, the finest they had, and that wasn’t good enough.’
‘Psha!’ said Miss Stanbury.
‘As though Mr Gibson hadn’t things of that kind good enough for her,’ said Martha.
Then there was silence in the room for awhile. Miss Stanbury was standing at one window, and Martha at the other, watching the people as they passed backwards and forwards, in and out of the Close. Dorothy had now been away at Nuncombe Putney for some weeks, and her aunt felt her loneliness with a heavy sense of weakness. Never had she entertained a companion in the house who had suited her as well as her niece, Dorothy. Dorothy would always listen to her, would always talk to her, would always bear with her. Since Dorothy had gone, various letters had been interchanged between them. Though there had been anger about Brooke Burgess, there had been no absolute rupture; but Miss Stanbury had felt that she could not write and beg her niece to come back to her. She had not sent Dorothy away. Dorothy had chosen to go, because her aunt had bad an opinion of her own as to what was fitting for her heir; and as Miss Stanbury would not give up her opinion, she could not ask her niece to return to her. Such had been her resolution, sternly expressed to herself a dozen times during these solitary weeks; but time and solitude had acted upon her, and she longed for the girl’s presence in the house. ‘Martha,’ she said at last, ‘I think I shall get you to go over to Nuncombe Putney.’
‘Why not again? It’s not so far, I suppose, that the journey will hurt you.’
‘I don’t think it’d hurt me, ma’am, only what good will I do?’
‘If you’ll go rightly to work, you may do good. Miss Dorothy was a fool to go the way she did, a great fool.’
‘She stayed longer than I thought she would, ma’am.’
‘I’m not asking you what you thought. I’ll tell you what. Do you send Giles to Winslow’s, and tell them to send in early tomorrow a nice fore-quarter of lamb. Or it wouldn’t hurt you if you went and chose it yourself.’
‘It wouldn’t hurt me at all, ma’am.’
‘You get it nice, not too small, because meat is meat at the price things are now; and how they ever see butcher’s meat at all is more than I can understand.’
‘People as has to be careful, ma’am, makes a little go a long way.’
‘You get it a good size, and take it over in a basket. It won’t hurt you, done up clean in a napkin.’
‘It won’t hurt me at all, ma’am.’
‘And you give it to Miss Dorothy with my love. Don’t you let ’em think I sent it to my sister-inlaw.’
‘And is that to be all, ma’am?’
‘How do you mean all?’
‘Because, ma’am, the railway and the carrier would take it quite ready, and there would be a matter of ten or twelve shillings saved in the journey.’
‘Whose affair is that?’
‘Not mine, ma’am, of course.’
‘I believe you’re afraid of the trouble, Martha. Or else you don’t like going because they’re poor.’
‘It ain’t fair, ma’am, of you to say so, that it ain’t. All I ask is, is that to be all? When I’ve giv’em the lamb, am I just to come away straight, or am I to say anything? It will look so odd if I’m just to put down the basket and come away without e’er a word.’
‘You’re a fool.’
‘That’s true, too, ma’am.’
‘It would be like you to go about in that dummy way, wouldn’t it, and you that was so fond of Miss Dorothy.’
‘I was fond of her, ma’am.’
‘Of course you’ll be talking to her and why not? And if she should say anything about returning —’
‘You can say that you know her old aunt wouldn’t wouldn’t refuse to have her back again. You can put it your own way, you know. You needn’t make me find words for you.’
‘But she won’t, ma’am.’
‘Won’t say anything about returning.’
‘Yes, she will, Martha, if you talk to her rightly.’ The servant didn’t reply for a while, but stood looking out of the window. ‘You might as well go about the lamb at once, Martha.’
‘So I will, ma’am, when I’ve got it out, all clear.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘Why just this, ma’am. May I tell Miss Dolly straight out that you want her to come back, and that I’ve been sent to say so?’
‘Then how am I to do it, ma’am?’
‘Do it out of your own head, just as it comes up at the moment.’
‘Out of my own head, ma’am?’
‘Yes just as you feel, you know.’
‘Just as I feel, ma’am?’
‘You understand what I mean, Martha.’
‘I’ll do my best, ma’am, and I can’t say no more. And if you scolds me afterwards, ma’am why, of course, I must put up with it.’
‘But I won’t scold you, Martha.’
‘Then I’ll go out to Winslow’s about the lamb at once, ma’am.’
‘Very nice, and not too small, Martha.’
Martha went out and ordered the lamb, and packed it as desired quite clean in a napkin, and fitted it into the basket, and arranged with Giles Hickbody to carry it down for her early in the morning to the station, so that she might take the first train to Lessborough. It was understood that she was to hire a fly at Lessborough to take her to Nuncombe Putney. Now that she understood the importance of her mission and was aware that the present she took with her was only the customary accompaniment of an ambassadress entrusted with a great mission, Martha said nothing even about the expense. The train started for Lessborough at seven, and as she was descending from her room at six, Miss Stanbury in her flannel dressing-gown stepped out of the door of her own room. ‘Just put this in the basket,’ said she, handing a note to her servant. ‘I thought last night I’d write a word. Just put it in the basket and say nothing about it.’ The note which she sent was as follows:
‘The Close, 8th April, 186-.
MY DEAR DOROTHY
As Martha talks of going over to pay you a visit, I’ve thought that I’d just get her to take you a quarter of lamb, which is coming in now very nice. I do envy her going to see you, my dear, for I had gotten somehow to love to see your pretty face. I’m getting almost strong again; but Sir Peter, who was here this afternoon, just calling as a friend, was uncivil enough to say that I’m too much of an old woman to go out in the east wind. I told him it didn’t much matter for the sooner old women made way for young ones, the better.
I am very desolate and solitary here. But I rather think that women who don’t get married are intended to be desolate; and perhaps it is better for them, if they bestow their time and thoughts properly as I hope you do, my dear. A woman with a family of children has almost too many of the cares of this world, to give her mind as she ought to the other. What shall we say then of those who have no such cares, and yet do not walk uprightly? Dear Dorothy, be not such a one. For myself, I acknowledge bitterly the extent of my shortcomings. Much has been given to me; but if much be expected, how shall I answer the demand?
I hope I need not tell you that whenever it may suit you to pay a visit to Exeter, your room will be ready for you, and there will be a warm welcome. Mrs MacHugh always asks after you; and so has Mrs Clifford. I won’t tell you what Mrs Clifford said about your colour, because it would make you vain. The Heavitree affair has all been put off; of course you have heard that. Dear, dear, dear! You know what I think, so I need not repeat it.
Give my respects to your mamma and Priscilla, and for yourself, accept the affectionate love of
Your loving old aunt,
P.S. If Martha should say anything to you, you may feel sure that she knows my mind.’
Poor old soul. She felt an almost uncontrollable longing to have her niece back again, and yet she told herself that she was bound not to send a regular invitation, or to suggest an unconditional return. Dorothy had herself decided to take her departure, and if she chose to remain away so it must be. She, Miss Stanbury, could not demean herself by renewing her invitation. She read her letter before she added to it the postscript, and felt that it was too solemn in its tone to suggest to Dorothy that which she wished to suggest. She had been thinking much of her own past life when she wrote those words about the state of an unmarried woman, and was vacillating between two minds — whether it were better for a young woman to look forward to the cares and affections, and perhaps hard usage, of a married life; or to devote herself to the easier and safer course of an old maid’s career. But an old maid is nothing if she be not kind and good. She acknowledged that, and, acknowledging it, added the postscript to her letter. What though there was a certain blow to her pride in the writing of it! She did tell herself that, in thus referring her niece to Martha for an expression of her own mind after that conversation which she and Martha had had in the parlour, she was in truth eating her own words. But the postscript was written, and though she took the letter up with her to her own room in order that she might alter the words if she repented of them in the night, the letter was sent as it was written, postscript and all.
She spent the next day with very sober thoughts. When Mrs MacHugh called upon her and told her that there were rumours afloat in Exeter that the marriage between Camilla French and Mr Gibson would certainly be broken off, in spite of all purchases that had been made, she merely remarked that they were two poor, feckless things, who didn’t know their own minds. ‘Camilla knows her’s plain enough,’ said Mrs MacHugh sharply; but even this did not give Miss Stanbury any spirit. She waited, and waited patiently, till Martha should return, thinking of the sweet pink colour which used to come and go in Dorothy’s cheeks which she had been wont to observe so frequently, not knowing that she had observed it and loved it.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14