When the Monday came there was much to be done and to be thought of at Bowick. Mrs Peacocke on that day received a letter from San Francisco, giving her all the details of the evidence that her husband had obtained, and enclosing a copy of the photograph. There was now no reason why she should not become the true and honest wife of the man whom she had all along regarded as her husband in the sight of God. The writer declared that he would so quickly follow his letter that he might be expected home within a week, or, at the longest, ten days, from the date at which she would receive it. Immediately on his arrival at Liverpool, he would, of course, give her notice by telegraph.
When this letter reached her, she at once sent a message across to Mrs Wortle. Would Mrs Wortle kindly come and see her? Mrs Wortle was, of course, bound to do as she was asked, and started at once. But she was, in truth, but little able to give counsel on any subject outside the one which was at the moment nearest to her heart. At one o’clock, when the boys went to their dinner, Mary was to instruct her father as to the purport of the letter which was to be sent to Lord Bracy — and Mary had not as yet come to any decision. She could not go to her father for aid — she could not, at any rate, go to him until the appointed hour should come; and she was, therefore, entirely thrown upon her mother. Had she been old enough to understand the effect and the power of character, she would have known that, at the last moment, her father would certainly decide for her — and had her experience of the world been greater, she might have been quite sure that her father would decide in her favour. But as it was, she was quivering and shaking in the dark, leaning on her mother’s very inefficient aid, nearly overcome with the feeling that by one o’clock she must be ready to say something quite decided.
And in the midst of this her mother was taken away from her, just at ten o’clock. There was not, in truth, much that the two ladies could say to each other. Mrs Peacocke felt it to be necessary to let the Doctor know that Mr Peacocke would be back almost at once, and took this means of doing so. “In a week!” said Mrs Wortle, as though painfully surprised by the suddenness of the coming arrival.
“In a week or ten days. He was to follow his letter as quickly as possible from San Francisco.”
“And he has found it all out?”
“Yes; he has learned everything, I think. Look at this!” And Mrs Peacocke handed to her friend the photograph of the tombstone.
“Dear me!” said Mrs Wortle. Ferdinand Lefroy! And this was his grave?”
“That is his grave,” said Mrs Peacocke, turning her face away.
“It is very sad; very sad indeed — but you had to learn it, you know.”
“It will not be sad for him, I hope,” said Mrs Peacocke. “In all this, I endeavour to think of him rather than of myself. When I am forced to think of myself, it seems to me that my life has been so blighted and destroyed that it must be indifferent what happens to me now. What has happened to me has been so bad that I can hardly be injured further. But if there can be a good time coming for him — something at least of relief, something perhaps of comfort — then I shall be satisfied.”
“Why should there not be comfort for you both?”
“I am almost as dead to hope as I am to shame. Some year or two ago I should have thought it impossible to bear the eyes of people looking at me, as though my life had been sinful and impure. I seem now to care nothing for all that. I can look them back again with bold eyes and a brazen face, and tell them that their hardness is at any rate as bad as my impurity.”
“We have not looked at you like that,” said Mrs Wortle.
“No; and therefore I send to you in my trouble, and tell you all this. The strangest thing of all to me is that I should have come across one man so generous as your husband, and one woman so soft-hearted as yourself.” There was nothing further to be said then. Mrs Wortle was instructed to tell her husband that Mr Peacocke was to be expected in a week or ten days, and then hurried back to give what assistance she could in the much more important difficulties of her own daughter.
Of course they were much more important to her. Was her girl to become the wife of a young lord — to be a future countess? Was she destined to be the mother-in-law of an earl? Of course this was much more important to her. And then through it all — being as she was a dear, good, Christian, motherly woman — she was well aware that there was something, in truth, much more important even than that. Though she thought much of the earl-ship, and the countess-ship, and the great revenue, and the big house at Carstairs, and the fine park with its magnificent avenues, and the carriage in which her daughter would be rolled about to London parties, and the diamonds which she would wear when she should be presented to the Queen as the bride of the young Lord Carstairs, yet she knew very well that she ought not in such an emergency as the present to think of these things as being of primary importance. What would tend most to her girl’s happiness — and welfare in this world and the next? It was of that she ought to think — of that only. If some answer were now returned to Lord Bracy, giving his lordship to understand that they, the Wortles, were anxious to encourage the idea, then in fact her girl would be tied to an engagement whether the young lord should hold himself to be so tied or no! And how would it be with her girl if the engagement should be allowed to run on in a doubtful way for years, and then be dropped by reason of the young man’s indifference? How would it be with her if, after perhaps three or four years, a letter should come saying that the young lord had changed his mind, and had engaged himself to some nobler bride? Was it not her duty, as a mother, to save her child from the too probable occurrence of some crushing grief such as this? All of it was clear to her mind — but then it was clear also that, if this opportunity of greatness were thrown away, no such chance in all probability would ever come again. Thus she was so tossed to and fro between a prospect of glorious prosperity for her child on one side, and the fear of terrible misfortune for her child on the other, that she was altogether unable to give any salutary advice. She, at any rate, ought to have known that her advice would at last be of no importance. Her experience ought to have told her that the Doctor would certainly settle the matter himself. Had it been her own happiness that was in question, her own conduct, her own greatness, she would not have dreamed of having an opinion of her own. She would have consulted the Doctor, and simply have done as he directed. But all this was for her child, and in a vague, vacillating way she felt that for her child she ought to be ready with counsel of her own.
“Mamma,” said Mary, when her mother came back from Mrs Peacocke, “what am I to say when he sends for me?”
“If you think that you can love him, my dear — ”
“Oh, mamma, you shouldn’t ask me!”
“I do like him — very much.”
“If so — ”
“But I never thought of it before — and then, if he — if he — ”
“If he what, my dear?”
“If he were to change his mind?”
“Ah, yes — there it is. It isn’t as though you could be married in three months’ time.”
“Oh, mamma! I shouldn’t like that at all.”
“Or even in six.”
“Of course he is very young.”
“And when a young man is so very young, I suppose he doesn’t quite know his own mind.”
“No, mamma. But — ”
“Well, my dear.”
“His father says that he has got — such a strong will of his own,” said poor Mary, who was anxious, unconsciously anxious, to put in a good word on her own side of the question, without making her own desire too visible.
“He always had that. When there was any game to be played, he always liked to have his own way. But then men like that are just as likely to change as others.”
“Are they, mamma?”
“But I do think that he is a lad of very high principle.”
“Papa has always said that of him.”
“And of fine generous feeling. He would not change like a weather-cock.”
“If you think he would change at all, I would rather — rather — rather — . Oh, mamma, why did you tell me?”
“My darling, my child, my angel! What am I to tell you? I do think of all the young men I ever knew he is the nicest, and the sweetest, and the most thoroughly good and affectionate.”
“Oh, mamma, do you?” said Mary, rushing at mother and kissing her and embracing her.
“But if there were to be no regular engagement, and you were to let him have your heart — and then things were to go wrong!”
Mary left the embracings, gave up the kissings, and seated herself on the sofa alone. In this way the morning was passed — and when Mary was summoned to her father’s study, the mother and daughter had not arrived between them at any decision.
“Well, my dear,” said the Doctor, smiling, what am I to say to the Earl?.”
“Must you write today, papa?”
“I think so. His letter is one that should not be left longer unanswered. Were we to do so, he would only think that we didn’t know what to say for ourselves.”
“Would he, papa?”
“He would fancy that we are half-ashamed to accept what has been offered to us, and yet anxious to take it.”
“I am not ashamed of anything.”
“No, my dear; you have no reason.”
“Nor have you, papa.”
“Nor have I. That is quite true. I have never been wont to be ashamed of myself — nor do I think that you ever will have cause to be ashamed of yourself. Therefore, why should we hesitate? Shall I help you, my darling, in coming to a decision on the matter?”
“If I can understand your heart on this matter, it has never as yet been given to this young man.”
“No, papa.” This Mary said not altogether with that complete power of asseveration which the negative is sometimes made to bear.
“But there must be a beginning to such things. A man throws himself into it headlong — as my Lord Carstairs seems to have done. At least all the best young men do.” Mary at this point felt a great longing to get up and kiss her father; but she restrained herself. “A young woman, on the other hand, if she is such as I think you are, waits till she is asked. Then it has to begin.” The Doctor, as he said this, smiled his sweetest smile.
“And when it has begun, she does not like to blurt it out at once, even to her loving old father.”
“That’s about it, isn’t it? Haven’t I hit it off?” He paused, as though for a reply, but she was not as yet able to make him any. “Come here, my dear.” She came and stood by him, so that he could put his arm round her waist. “If it be as I suppose, you are better disposed to this young man than you are likely to be to any other, just at present.”
“Oh yes, papa.”
“To all others you are quite indifferent?”
“Yes — indeed, papa.”
“I am sure you are. But not quite indifferent to this one? Give me a kiss, my darling, and I will take that for your speech.” Then she kissed him — giving him her very best kiss. “And now, my child, what shall I say to the Earl?”
“I don’t know, papa.”
“Nor do I, quite. I never do know what to say till I’ve got the pen in my hand. But you’ll commission me to write as I may think best?”
“Oh yes, papa.”
“And I may presume that I know your mind?”
“Very well. Then you had better leave me, so that I can go to work with the paper straight before me, and my pen fixed in my fingers. I can never begin to think till I find myself in that position.” Then she left him, and went back to her mother.
“Well, my dear,” said Mrs Wortle.
“He is going to write to Lord Bracy.”
“But what does he mean to say?”
“I don’t know at all, mamma.”
“I think he means to tell Lord Bracy that he has got no objection.”
Then Mrs Wortle was sure that the Doctor meant to face all the dangers, and that therefore it would behove her to face them also.
The Doctor, when he was left alone, sat a while thinking of the matter before he put himself into the position fitted for composition which he had described to his daughter. He acknowledged to himself that there was a difficulty in making a fit reply to the letter which he had to answer. When his mind was set on sending an indignant epistle to the Bishop, the words flew from him like lightning out of the thunder-clouds. But now he had to think much of it before he could make any light to come which should not bear a different colour from that which he intended. “Of course such a marriage would suit my child, and would suit me,” he wished to say — “not only, or not chiefly, because your son is a nobleman, and will be an earl and a man of great property. That goes a long way with us. We are too true to deny it. We hate humbug, and want you to know simply the truth about us. The title and the money go far — but not half so far as the opinion which we entertain of the young man’s own good gifts. I would not give my girl to the greatest and richest nobleman under the British Crown, if I did not think that he would love her and be good to her, and treat her as a husband should treat his wife. But believing this young man to have good gifts such as these, and a fine disposition, I am willing, on my girl’s behalf — and she also is willing — to encounter the acknowledged danger of a long engagement in the hope of realising all the good things which would, if things went fortunately, thus come within her reach.” This was what he wanted to say to the Earl, but he found it very difficult to say it in language that should be natural.
MY DEAR LORD BRACY
When I learned, through Mary’s mother, that Carstairs had been here in our absence and made a declaration of love to our girl, I was, I must confess, annoyed. I felt, in the first place, that he was too young to have taken in hand such a business as that; and, in the next, that you might not unnaturally have been angry that your son, who had come here simply for tuition, should have fallen into a matter of love. I imagine that you will understand exactly what were my feelings. There was, however, nothing to be said about it. The evil, so far as it was an evil, had been done, and Carstairs was going away to Oxford, where, possibly, he might forget the whole affair. I did not, at any rate, think it necessary to make a complaint to you of his coming.
To all this your letter has given altogether a different aspect. I think that I am as little likely as another to spend my time or thoughts in looking for external advantages, but I am as much alive as another to the great honour to myself and advantage to my child of the marriage which is suggested to her. I do not know how any more secure prospect of happiness could be opened to her than that which such a marriage offers. I have thought myself bound to give her your letter to read because her heart and her imagination have naturally been affected by what your son said to her. I think I may say of my girl that none sweeter, none more innocent, none less likely to be over-anxious for such a prospect could exist. But her heart has been touched; and though she had not dreamt of him but as an acquaintance till he came here and told his own tale, and though she then altogether declined to entertain his proposal when it was made, now that she has learnt so much more through you, she is no longer indifferent. This, I think, you will find to be natural.
“I and her mother also are of course alive to the dangers of a long engagement, and the more so because your son has still before him a considerable portion of his education. Had he asked advice either of you or of me he would of course have been counselled not to think of marriage as yet. But the very passion which has prompted him to take this action upon himself shows — as you yourself say of him — that he has a stronger will than is usual to be found at his years. As it is so, it is probable that he may remain constant to this as to a fixed idea.”
“I think you will now understand my mind and Mary’s and her mother’s.” Lord Bracy as he read this declared to himself that though the Doctor’s mind was very clear, Mrs Wortle, as far as he knew, had no mind in the matter at all. “I would suggest that the affair should remain as it is, and that each of the young people should be made to understand that any future engagement must depend, not simply on the persistency of one of them, but on the joint persistency of the two.
If, after this, Lady Bracy should be pleased to receive Mary at Carstairs, I need not say that Mary will be delighted to make the visit. — Believe me, my dear Lord Bracy, yours most faithfully. JEFFREY WORTLE
The Earl, when he read this, though there was not a word in it to which he could take exception, was not altogether pleased. “Of course it will be an engagement,” he said to his wife.
“Of course it will,” said the Countess. But then Carstairs is so very much in earnest. He would have done it for himself if you hadn’t done it for him.”
“At any rate the Doctor is a gentleman,” the Earl said, comforting himself.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55