Brooke Burgess had been to Exeter and had gone, for he only remained there one night, and everything was apparently settled. It was not exactly told through Exeter that Miss Stanbury’s heir was to be allowed to marry Miss Stanbury’s niece; but Martha knew it, and Giles Hickbody guessed it, and Dorothy was allowed to tell her mother and sister, and Brooke himself, in his own careless way, had mentioned the matter to his uncle Barty. As Miss Stanbury had also told the secret in confidence to Mrs MacHugh, it cannot be said that it was altogether well kept. Four days after Brooke’s departure the news reached the Frenches at Heavitree. It was whispered to Camilla by one of the shopmen with whom she was still arranging her marriage trousseau, and was repeated by her to her mother and sister with some additions which were not intended to be good-natured. ‘He gets her and the money together as a bargain of course,’ said Camilla. ‘I only hope the money won’t be found too dear.’
‘Perhaps he won’t get it after all,’ said Arabella.
‘That would be cruel,’ replied Camilla. ‘I don’t think that even Miss Stanbury is so false as that.’
Things were going very badly at Heavitree. There was war there, almost everlastingly, though such little playful conversations as the above shewed that there might be an occasional lull in the battle. Mr Gibson was not doing his duty. That was clear enough. Even Mrs French, when she was appealed to with almost frantic energy by her younger daughter, could not but acknowledge that he was very remiss as a lover. And Camilla, in her fury, was very imprudent. That very frantic energy which induced her to appeal to her mother was, in itself, proof of her imprudence. She knew that she was foolish, but she could not control her passion. Twice had she detected Arabella in receiving notes from Mr Gibson, which she did not see, and of which it had been intended that she should know nothing. And once, when she spent a night away at Ottery St. Mary with a friend, a visit which was specially prefatory to marriage, and made in reference to bridesmaids’ dresses, Arabella had had — so at least Camilla was made to believe — a secret meeting with Mr Gibson in some of the lanes which lead down from Heavitree to the Topsham road.
‘I happened to meet him, and spoke two words to him,’ said Arabella. ‘Would you have me cut him?’
‘I’ll tell you what it is, Bella, if there is any underhand game going on that I don’t understand, all Exeter shall be on fire before you shall carry it out.’
Bella made no answer to this, but shrugged her shoulders. Camilla was almost at a loss to guess what might be the truth. Would not any sister, so accused on such an occasion, rebut the accusation with awful wrath? But Arabella simply shrugged her shoulders, and went her way. It was now the 16th of April, and there wanted but one short fortnight to their marriage. The man had not the courage to jilt her! She felt sure that he had not heart enough to do a deed of such audacity. And her sister, too, was weak and a coward, and would lack the power to stand on her legs and declare herself to be the perpetrator of such villany. Her mother, as she knew well, would always have preferred that her elder daughter should be the bride; but her mother was not the woman to have the hardihood, now, in the eleventh hour, to favour such an intrigue. Let her wish be what it might, she would not be strong enough to carry through the accomplishment of it. They would all know that that threat of hers of setting Exeter on fire would be carried out after some fashion that would not be inadequate to the occasion. A sister, a mother, a promised lover, all false — all so damnably, cruelly false! It was impossible. No history, no novel of most sensational interest, no wonderful villany that had ever been wrought into prose or poetry, would have been equal to this. It was impossible. She told herself so a score of times a day. And yet the circumstances were so terribly suspicious! Mr Gibson’s conduct as a lover was simply disgraceful to him as a man and a clergyman. He was full of excuses, which she knew to be false. He would never come near her if he could help it. When he was with her, he was as cold as an archbishop both in word and in action. Nothing would tempt him to any outward manifestation of affection. He would talk of nothing but the poor women of St. Peter-cum-Pumpkin in the city, and the fraudulent idleness of a certain colleague in the cathedral services, who was always shirking his work. He made her no presents. He never walked with her. He was always gloomy, and he had indeed so behaved himself in public that people were beginning to talk of ‘poor Mr Gibson.’ And yet he could meet Arabella on the sly in the lanes, and send notes to her by the green-grocer’s boy! Poor Mr Gibson indeed! Let her once get him well over the 29th of April, and the people of Exeter might talk about poor Mr Gibson if they pleased. And Bella’s conduct was more wonderful almost than that of Mr Gibson. With all her cowardice, she still held up her head, held it perhaps a little higher than was usual with her. And when that grievous accusation was made against her — made and repeated — an accusation the very thought and sound of which would almost have annihilated her had there been a decent feeling in her bosom, she would simply shrug her shoulders and walk away. ‘Camilla,’ she had once said, ‘you will drive that man mad before you have done.’ ‘What is it to you how I drive him?’ Camilla had answered in her fury. Then Arabella had again shrugged her shoulders and walked away. Between Camilla and her mother, too, there had come to be an almost internecine quarrel on a collateral point. Camilla was still carrying on a vast arrangement which she called the preparation of her trousseau, but which both Mrs French and Bella regarded as a spoliation of the domestic nest, for the proud purposes of one of the younger birds. And this had grown so fearfully that in two different places Mrs French had found herself compelled to request that no further articles might be supplied to Miss Camilla. The bride elect had rebelled, alleging that as no fortune was to be provided for her, she had a right to take with her such things as she could carry away in her trunks and boxes. Money could be had at the bank, she said; and, after all, what were fifty pounds more or less on such an occasion as this? And then she went into a calculation to prove that her mother and sister would be made so much richer by her absence, and that she was doing so much for them by her marriage, that nothing could be more mean in them than that they should hesitate to supply her with such things as she desired to make her entrance into Mr Gibson’s house respectable. But Mrs French was obdurate, and Mr Gibson was desired to speak to her. Mr Gibson, in fear and trembling, told her that she ought to repress her spirit of extravagance, and Camilla at once foresaw that he would avail himself of this plea against her should he find it possible at any time to avail himself of any plea. She became ferocious, and, turning upon him, told him to mind his own business. Was it not all for him that she was doing it? ‘She was not,’ she said, ‘disposed to submit to any control in such matters from him till he had assumed his legal right to it by standing with her before the altar.’ It came, however, to be known all over Exeter that Miss Camilla’s expenditure had been checked, and that, in spite of the joys naturally incidental to a wedding, things were not going well with the ladies at Heavitree.
At last the blow came. Camilla was aware that on a certain morning her mother had been to Mr Gibson’s house, and had held a long conference with him. She could learn nothing of what took place there, for at that moment she had taken upon herself to place herself on non-speaking terms with her mother in consequence of those disgraceful orders which had been given to the tradesmen. But Bella had not been at Mr Gibson’s house at the time, and Camilla, though she presumed that her own conduct had been discussed in a manner very injurious to herself, did not believe that any step was being then arranged which would be positively antagonistic to her own views. The day fixed was now so very near that there could, she felt, be no escape for the victim. But she was wrong.
Mr Gibson had been found by Mrs French in a very excited state on that occasion. He had wept, and pulled his hair, and torn open his waistcoat, had spoken of himself as a wretch, pleading, however, at the same time, that he was more sinned against than sinning, had paced about the room with his hands dashing against his brows, and at last had flung himself prostrate on the ground. The meaning of it all was that he had tried very hard, and had found at last that ‘he couldn’t do it.’ ‘I am ready to submit,’ said he, ‘to any verdict that you may pronounce against me, but I should deceive you and deceive her if I didn’t say at once that I can’t do it.’ He went on to explain that since he had unfortunately entered into his present engagement with Camilla, of whose position he spoke in quite a touching manner, and since he had found what was the condition of his own heart and feelings, he had consulted a friend who, if any merely human being was capable of advising, might be implicitly trusted for advice in such a matter, and that this friend had told him that he was bound to give up the marriage, let the consequences to himself or to others be what they might. ‘Although the skies should fall on me, I cannot stand at the hymeneal altar with a lie in my mouth,’ said Mr Gibson immediately upon his rising from his prostrate condition on the floor. In such a position as this a mother’s fury would surely be very great! But Mrs French was hardly furious. She cried, and begged him to think better of it, and assured him that Camilla, when she should be calmed down by matrimony, would not be so bad as she seemed, but she was not furious. ‘The truth is, Mr Gibson,’ she said through her tears, ‘that, after all, you like Bella best.’ Mr Gibson owned that he did like Bella best, and although no bargain was made between them then and there — and such making of a bargain then and there would hardly have been practicable — it was understood that Mrs French would not proceed to extremities if Mr Gibson would still make himself forthcoming as a husband for the advantage of one of the daughters of the family.
So far Mr Gibson had progressed towards a partial liberation from his thraldom with a considerable amount of courage; but he was well aware that the great act of daring still remained to be done. He had suggested to Mrs French that she should settle the matter with Camilla, but this Mrs French had altogether declined to do. It must, she said, come from himself. If she were to do it, she must sympathise with her child; and such sympathy would be obstructive of the future arrangements which were still to be made. ‘She always knew that I liked Bella best,’ said Mr Gibson still sobbing, still tearing his hair, still pacing the room with his waistcoat torn open. ‘I would not advise you to tell her that,’ said Mrs French. Then Mrs French went home, and early on the following morning it was thought good by Arabella that she also should pay a visit at Ottery St. Mary’s. ‘Good-bye, Cammy,’ said Arabella as she went. ‘Bella,’ said Camilla, ‘I wonder whether you are a serpent. I do not think you can be so base a serpent as that.’ ‘I declare, Cammy, you do say such odd things that no one can understand what you mean.’ And so she went.
On that morning Mr Gibson was walking at an early hour along the road from Exeter to Cowley, contemplating his position and striving to arrange his plans. What was he to do, and how was he to do it? He was prepared to throw up his living, to abandon the cathedral, to leave the diocese, to make any sacrifice rather than take Camilla to his bosom. Within the last six weeks he had learned to regard her with almost a holy horror. He could not understand by what miracle of self-neglect he had fallen into so perilous an abyss. He had long known Camilla’s temper. But in those days in which he had been beaten like a shuttlecock between the Stanburys and the Frenches, he had lost his head and had done he knew not what. ‘Those whom the God chooses to destroy, he first maddens,’ said Mr Gibson to himself of himself, throwing himself back upon early erudition and pagan philosophy. Then he looked across to the river Exe, and thought that there was hardly water enough there to cover the multiplicity of his sorrows.
But something must be done. He had proceeded so far in forming a resolution, as he reached St. David’s Church on his return homewards. His sagacious friend had told him that as soon as he had altered his mind, he was bound to let the lady know of it without delay. ‘You must remember,’ said the sagacious friend, ‘that you will owe her much very much.’ Mr Gibson was perplexed in his mind when he reflected how much he might possibly be made to owe her if she should decide on appealing to a jury of her countrymen for justice. But anything would be better than his home at St. Peter’s-cum-Pumpkin with Camilla sitting opposite to him as his wife. Were there not distant lands in which a clergyman, unfortunate but still energetic, might find work to do? Was there not all America? And were there not Australia, New Zealand, Natal, all open to him? Would not a missionary career among the Chinese be better for him than St. Peter’s-cum-Pumpkin with Camilla French for his wife? By the time he had reached home his mind was made up. He would write a letter to Camilla at once; and he would marry Arabella at once on any day that might be fixed on condition that Camilla would submit to her defeat without legal redress. If legal redress should be demanded, he would put in evidence the fact that her own mother had been compelled to caution the tradesmen of the city in regard to her extravagance.
He did write his letter in an agony of spirit. ‘I sit down, Camilla, with a sad heart and a reluctant hand,’ he said, ‘to communicate to you a fatal truth. But truth should be made to prevail, and there is nothing in man so cowardly, so detrimental, and so unmanly as its concealment. I have looked into myself, and have inquired of myself, and have assured myself, that were I to become your husband, I should not make you happy. It would be of no use for me now to dilate on the reasons which have convinced me, but I am convinced, and I consider it my duty to inform you so at once. I have been closeted with your mother, and have made her understand that it is so.
I have not a word to say in my own justification but this: that I am sure I am acting honestly in telling you the truth. I would not wish to say a word animadverting on yourself. If there must be blame in this matter, I am willing to take it all on my own shoulders. But things have been done of late, and words have been spoken, and habits have displayed themselves, which would not, I am sure, conduce to our mutual comfort in this world, or to our assistance to each other in our struggles to reach the happiness of the world to come.
I think that you will agree with me, Camilla, that when a man or a woman has fallen into such a mistake as that which I have now made, it is best that it should be acknowledged. I know well that such a change of arrangements as that which I now propose will be regarded most unfavourably. But will not anything be better than the binding of a matrimonial knot which cannot be again unloosed, and which we should both regret?
I do not know that I need add anything further. What can I add further? Only this, that I am inflexible. Having resolved to take this step and to bear the evil things that may be said of me, for your happiness and for my own tranquillity, I shall not now relinquish my resolution. I do not ask you to forgive me. I doubt much whether I shall ever be quite able to forgive myself. The mistake which I have made is one which should not have been committed. I do not ask you to forgive me; but I do ask you to pray that I may be forgiven.
Yours, with feelings of the truest friendship,
The letter had been very difficult, but he was rather proud of it than otherwise when it was completed. He had felt that he was writing a letter which not improbably might become public property. It was necessary that he should be firm, that he should accuse himself a little in order that he might excuse himself much, and that he should hint at causes which might justify the rupture, though he should so veil them as not to appear to defend his own delinquency by ungenerous counter-accusation. When he had completed the letter, he thought that he had done all this rather well, and he sent the despatch off to Heavitree by the clerk of St. Peter’s Church, with something of that feeling of expressible relief which attends the final conquest over some fatal and all but insuperable misfortune. He thought that he was sure now that he would not have to marry Camilla on the 29th of the month and there would probably be a period of some hours before he would be called upon to hear or read Camilla’s reply.
Camilla was alone when she received the letter, but she rushed at once to her mother. ‘There,’ said she; ‘there I knew that it was coming!’ Mrs French took the paper into her hands and gasped, and gazed at her daughter without speaking. ‘You knew of it, mother.’
‘Yesterday when he told me, I knew of it.’
‘And Bella knows it.’
‘Not a word of it.’
‘She does. I am sure she does. But it is all nothing. I will not accept it. He cannot treat me so. I will drag him there, but he shall come.’
‘You can’t make him, my dear.’
‘I will make him. And you would help me, mamma, if you had any spirit. What, a fortnight before the time, when the things are all bought! Look at the presents that have been sent! Mamma, he doesn’t know me. And he never would have done it, if it had not been for Bella, never. She had better take care, or there shall be such a tragedy that nobody ever heard the like. If she thinks that she is going to be that man’s wife she is mistaken.’ Then there was a pause for a moment.
‘Mamma,’ she said, ‘I shall go to him at once. I do not care in the least what anybody may say. I shall go to him at once.’ Mrs French felt that at this moment it was best that she should be silent.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01