When Mary reached her home she was at once met by her stepmother in the passage with tidings of importance. “He is up-stairs in the drawing-room,” said Mrs. Masters. Mary whose mind was laden with thoughts of Reginald Morton asked who was the he. “Lawrence Twentyman,” said Mrs. Masters. “And now, my dear, do, do think of it before you go to him.” There was no anger now in her stepmother’s face, but entreaty and almost love. She had not called Mary “my dear” for many weeks past — not since that journey to Cheltenham. Now she grasped the girl’s hand as she went on with her prayer. “He is so good and so true! And what better can there be for you? With your advantages, and Lady Ushant, and all that, you would be quite the lady at Chowton. Think of your father and sisters; what a good you could do them! And think of the respect they all have for him, dining with Lord Rufford the other day and all the other gentlemen. It isn’t only that he has got plenty to live on, but he knows how to keep it as a man ought. He’s sure to hold up his head and be as good a squire as any of ’em.” This was a very different tale; — a note altogether changed! It must not be said that the difference of the tale and the change of the note affected Mary’s heart; but her stepmother’s manner to her did soften her. And then why should she regard herself or her own feelings? Like others she had thought much of her own happiness, had made herself the centre of her own circle, had, in her imagination, built castles in the air and filled them according to her fancy. But her fancies had been all shattered into fragments; not a stone of her castles was standing; she had told herself unconsciously that there was no longer a circle and no need for a centre. That last half-hour which she had passed with Reginald Morton on the road home had made quite sure that which had been sure enough before. He was not altogether out of her reach, thinking only of the new duties which were coming to him. She would never walk with him again; never put herself in the way of indulging some fragment of an illusory hope. She was nothing now, nothing even to herself. Why should she not give herself and her services to this young man if the young man chose to take her as she was? It would be well that she should do something in the world. Why should she not look after his house, and mend his shirts, and reign over his poultry yard? In this way she would be useful, and respected by all — unless perhaps by the man she loved. “Mary, say that you will think of it once more,” pleaded Mrs. Masters.
“I may go up-stairs — to my own room?”
“Certainly; do; — go up and smooth your hair. I will tell him that you are coming to him. He will wait. But he is so much in earnest now — and so sad — that I know he will not come again.”
Then Mary went up-stairs, determined to think of it. She began at once, woman-like, to smooth her hair as her stepmother had recommended, and to remove the dust of the road from her face and dress. But not the less was she thinking of it the while. Could she do it, how much pain would be spared even to herself! How much that was now bitter as gall in her mouth would become — not sweet — but tasteless. There are times in one’s life in which the absence of all savour seems to be sufficient for life in this world. Were she to do this thing she thought that she would have strength to banish that other man from her mind — and at last from her heart. He would be there, close to her, but of a different kind and leading a different life. Mrs. Masters had told her that Larry would be as good a squire as the best of them; but it should be her care to keep him and herself in their proper position, to teach him the vanity of such aspirations. And the real squire opposite, who would despise her — for had he not told her that she would be despicable if she married this man — would not trouble her then. They might meet on the roads, and there would be a cold question or two as to each other’s welfare, and a vain shaking of hands — but they would know nothing and care for nothing as to each other’s thoughts. And there would come some stately dame who hearing how things had been many years ago, would perhaps —. But no; — the stately dame should be received with courtesy, but there should be no patronising. Even in these few minutes up-stairs she thought much of the stately dame and was quite sure that she would endure no patronage from Bragton.
She almost thought that she could do it. There were hideous ideas afflicting her soul dreadfully, but which she strove to banish. Of course she could not love him — not at first. But all those who wished her to marry him, including himself, knew that; — and still they wished her to marry him. How could that be disgraceful which all her friends desired? Her father, to whom she was, as she knew well, the very apple of his eye, wished her to marry this man; — and yet her father knew that her heart was elsewhere. Had not women done it by hundreds, by thousands, and had afterwards performed their duties well as mothers and wives. In other countries, as she had read, girls took the husbands found for them by their parents as a matter of course. As she left the room, and slowly crept down-stairs, she almost thought she would do it. She almost thought; — but yet, when her hand was on the lock, she could not bring herself to say that it should be so.
He was not dressed as usual. In the first place, there was a round hat on the table, such as men wear in cities. She had never before seen such a hat with him except on a Sunday. And he wore a black cloth coat, and dark brown pantaloons, and a black silk handkerchief. She observed it all, and thought that he had not changed for the better. As she looked into his face, it seemed to her more common — meaner than before. No doubt he was good-looking — but his good-looks were almost repulsive to her. He had altogether lost his little swagger; — but he had borne that little swagger well, and in her presence it had never been offensive. Now he seemed as though he had thrown aside all the old habits of his life, and was pining to death from the loss of them. “Mary,” he said, “I have come to you — for the last time. I thought I would give myself one more chance, and your father told me that I might have it” He paused, as though expecting an answer. But she had not yet quite made up her mind. Had she known her mind, she would have answered him frankly. She was quite resolved as to that. If she could once bring herself to give him her hand, she would not coy it for a moment. “I will be your wife, Larry.” That was the form on which she had determined, should she find herself able to yield. But she had not brought herself to it as yet. “If you can take me, Mary, you will — well — save me from lifelong misery, and make the man who loves you the best-contented and the happiest man in England.”
“But, Larry, I do not love you”
“I will make you love me. Good usage will make a wife love her husband. Don’t you think you can trust me?”
“I do believe that I can trust you for everything good.”
“Is that nothing?”
“It is a great deal, Larry, but not enough; — not enough to bring together a man and woman as husband and wife. I would sooner marry a man I loved, though I knew he would ill-use me.”
“To marry either would be wrong.”
“I sometimes think, dearest, that if I could talk better I should be better able to persuade you.”
“I sometimes think you talk so well that I ought to be persuaded; — but I can’t. It is not lack of talking.”
“What is it, then?”
“Just this; — my heart does not turn itself that way. It is the same chance that has made you — partial to me.”
“Partial! Why, I love the very air you breathe. When I am near you, everything smells sweet. There isn’t anything that belongs to you but I think I should know it, though I found it a hundred miles away. To have you in the room with me would be like heaven — if I only knew that you were thinking kindly of me.”
“I always think kindly of you, Larry.”
“Then say that you will be my wife.” She paused, and became red up to the roots of her hair. She seated herself on a chair, and then rose again — and again sat down. The struggle was going on within her, and he perceived something of the truth. “Say the word once, Mary; — say it but once.” And as he prayed to her he came forward and went down upon his knees.
“I cannot do it,” she replied at last, speaking very hoarsely, not looking at him, not even addressing herself to him.
“Larry, I cannot do it. I have tried, but I cannot do it. O Larry, dear Larry, do not ask me again. Larry, I have no heart to give. Another man has it all.”
“Is it so?” She bowed her head in token of assent. “Is it that young parson,” exclaimed Larry, in anger.
“It is not. But, Larry, you must ask no questions now. I have told you my secret that all this might be set at rest. But if you are generous, as I know you are, you will keep my secret, and will ask no questions. And, Larry, if you are unhappy, so am I. If your heart is sore, so is mine. He knows nothing of my love, and cares nothing for me.”
“Then throw him aside.”
She smiled and shook her head. “Do you think I would not if I could? Why do you not throw me aside?”
“Cannot I love as well as you? You are a man, and have the liberty to speak of it. Though I cannot return it, I can be proud of your love and feel grateful to you. I cannot tell mine. I cannot think of it without blushing. But I can feel it, and know it, and be as sure that it has trodden me down and got the better of me as you can. But you can go out into the world and teach yourself to forget”
“I must go away from here then.”
“You have your business and your pleasures, your horses and your fields and your friends. I have nothing — but to remain here and know that I have disobliged all those that love me. Do you think, Larry, I would not go and be your wife if I could? I have told you all, Larry, and now do not ask me again.”
“Is it so?”
“Yes; — it is so.”
“Then I shall cut it all. I shall sell Chowton and go away. You tell me I have my horses and my pleasures! What pleasures? I know nothing of my horses — not whether they are lame or sound. I could not tell you of one of them whether he is fit to go to-morrow. Business! The place may farm itself for me, for I can’t stay there. Everything sickens me to look at it. Pleasures indeed!”
“Is that manly, Larry?”
“How can a man be manly when the manliness is knocked out of him? A man’s courage lies in his heart; but if his heart is broken where will his courage be then? I couldn’t hold up my head up here any more — and I shall go.”
“You must not do that,” she said, getting up and laying hold of his arm.
“But I must do it”
“For my sake you must stay here, Larry; — so that I may not have to think that I have injured you so deeply. Larry, though I cannot be your wife I think I could die of sorrow if you were always unhappy. What is a poor girl that you should grieve for her in that way? I think if I were a man I would master my love better than that.” He shook his head and faintly strove to drag his arm from out of her grasp. “Promise me that you will take a year to think of it before you go.”
“Will you take a year to think of me?” said he, rising again to sudden hope.
“No, Larry, no. I should deceive you were I to say so. I deceived you before when I put it off for two months. But you can promise me without deceit. For my sake, Larry?” And she almost embraced him as she begged for his promise. “I know you would wish to spare me pain. Think what will be my sufferings if I hear that you have really gone from Chowton. You will promise me, Larry?”
“That the farm shall not be sold for twelve months”
“Oh yes; — I’ll promise. I don’t care for the farm.”
“And stay there if you can. Don’t leave the place to strangers. And go about your business — and hunt — and be a man. I shall always be thinking of what you do. I shall always watch you. I shall always love you — always — always — always. I always have loved you; — because you are so good. But it is a different love. And now, Larry, good-bye.” So saying, she raised her face to look into his eyes. Then he suddenly put his arm round her waist, kissed her forehead, and left the room without another word.
Mrs. Masters saw him as he went, and must have known from his gait what was the nature of the answer he had received. But yet she went quickly upstairs to inquire. The matter was one of too much consequence for a mere inference. Mary had gone from the sitting-room, but her stepmother followed her upstairs to her bed-chamber. “Mamma,” she said, “I couldn’t do it; — I couldn’t do it. I did try. Pray do not scold me. I did try, but I could not do it” Then she threw herself into the arms of the unsympathetic woman, who, however, was now somewhat less unsympathetic than she had hitherto been.
Mrs. Masters did not understand it at all; but she did perceive that there was something which she did not understand. What did the girl mean by saying that she had tried and could not do it? Try to do it! If she tried why could she not tell the man that she would have him? There was surely some shamefacedness in this, some overstrained modesty which she, Mrs. Masters, could not comprehend. How could she have tried to accept a man who was so anxious to marry her, and have failed in the effort? “Scolding I suppose will be no good now,” she said.
“But —. Well; I suppose we must put up with it. Everything on earth that a girl could possibly wish for! He was that in love that it’s my belief he’d have settled it all on you if you’d only asked him.”
“Let it go, mamma.”
“Let it go! It’s gone I suppose. Well — I ain’t going to say any more about it. But as for not sorrowing, how is a woman not to sorrow when so much has been lost? It’s your poor father I’m thinking of, Mary.” This was so much better than she had expected that poor Mary almost felt that her heart was lightened.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14