On one Wednesday morning early in June, great preparations were being made at the brick house in the Close at Exeter for an event which can hardly be said to have required any preparation at all. Mrs. Stanbury and her elder daughter were coming into Exeter from Nuncombe Putney to visit Dorothy. The reader may perhaps remember that when Miss Stanbury's invitation was sent to her niece, she was pleased to promise that such visits should be permitted on a Wednesday morning. Such a visit was now to be made, and old Miss Stanbury was quite moved by the occasion. "I shall not see them, you know, Martha," she had said, on the afternoon of the preceding day.
"I suppose not, ma'am."
"Certainly not. Why should I? It would do no good."
"It is not for me to say, ma'am, of course."
"No, Martha, it is not. And I am sure that I am right. It's no good going back and undoing in ten minutes what twenty years have done. She's a poor harmless creature, I believe."
"The most harmless in the world, ma'am."
"But she was as bad as poison to me when she was young, and what's the good of trying to change it now? If I was to tell her that I loved her, I should only be lying."
"Then, ma'am, I would not say it."
"And I don't mean. But you'll take in some wine and cake, you know."
"I don't think they'll care for wine and cake."
"Will you do as I tell you? What matters whether they care for it or not? They need not take it. It will look better for Miss Dorothy. If Dorothy is to remain here I shall choose that she should be respected." And so the question of the cake and wine had been decided overnight. But when the morning came Miss Stanbury was still in a twitter. Half-past ten had been the hour fixed for the visit, in consequence of there being a train in from Lessboro', due at the Exeter station at ten. As Miss Stanbury breakfasted always at half-past eight, there was no need of hurry on account of the expected visit. But, nevertheless, she was in a fuss all the morning; and spoke of the coming period as one in which she must necessarily put herself into solitary confinement.
"Perhaps your mamma will be cold," she said, "and will expect a fire."
"Oh, dear, no, Aunt Stanbury."
"It could be lighted of course. It is a pity they should come just so as to prevent you from going to morning service; is it not?"
"I could go with you, aunt, and be back very nearly in time. They won't mind waiting a quarter of an hour."
"What; and have them here all alone! I wouldn't think of such a thing. I shall go up-stairs. You had better come to me when they are gone. Don't hurry them. I don't want you to hurry them at all; and if you require anything, Martha will wait upon you. I have told the girls to keep out of the way. They are so giddy, there's no knowing what they might be after. Besides,—they've got their work to mind."
All this was very terrible to poor Dorothy, who had not as yet quite recovered from the original fear with which her aunt had inspired her,—so terrible that she was almost sorry that her mother and sister were coming to her. When the knock was heard at the door, precisely as the cathedral clock was striking half-past ten,—to secure which punctuality, and thereby not to offend the owner of the mansion, Mrs. Stanbury and Priscilla had been walking about the Close for the last ten minutes,—Miss Stanbury was still in the parlour.
"There they are!" she exclaimed, jumping up. "They haven't given a body much time to run away, have they, my dear? Half a minute, Martha,—just half a minute!" Then she gathered up her things as though she had been ill-treated in being driven to make so sudden a retreat, and Martha, as soon as the last hem of her mistress's dress had become invisible on the stairs, opened the front door for the visitors.
"Do you mean to say you like it?" said Priscilla, when they had been there about a quarter of an hour.
"H—u—sh," whispered Mrs. Stanbury.
"I don't suppose she's listening at the door," said Priscilla.
"Indeed, she's not," said Dorothy. "There can't be a truer, honester woman, than Aunt Stanbury."
"But is she kind to you, Dolly?" asked the mother.
"Very kind; too kind. Only I don't understand her quite, and then she gets angry with me. I know she thinks I'm a fool, and that's the worst of it."
"Then, if I were you, I would come home," said Priscilla.
"She'll never forgive you if you do," said Mrs. Stanbury.
"And who need care about her forgiveness?" said Priscilla.
"I don't mean to go home yet, at any rate," said Dorothy. Then there was a knock at the door, and Martha entered with the cake and wine. "Miss Stanbury's compliments, ladies, and she hopes you'll take a glass of sherry." Whereupon she filled out the glasses and carried them round.
"Pray give my compliments and thanks to my sister Stanbury," said Dorothy's mother. But Priscilla put down the glass of wine without touching it, and looked her sternest at the maid.
Altogether, the visit was not very successful, and poor Dorothy almost felt that if she chose to remain in the Close she must lose her mother and sister, and that without really making a friend of her aunt. There had as yet been no quarrel,—nothing that had been plainly recognised as disagreeable; but there had not as yet come to be any sympathy, or assured signs of comfortable love. Miss Stanbury had declared more than once that it would do, but had not succeeded in showing in what the success consisted. When she was told that the two ladies were gone, she desired that Dorothy might be sent to her, and immediately began to make anxious inquiries.
"Well, my dear, and what do they think of it?"
"I don't know, aunt, that they think very much."
"And what do they say about it?"
"They didn't say very much, aunt. I was very glad to see mamma and Priscilla. Perhaps I ought to tell you that mamma gave me back the money I sent her."
"What did she do that for?" asked Miss Stanbury very sharply.
"Because she says that Hugh sends her now what she wants." Miss Stanbury, when she heard this, looked very sour. "I thought it best to tell you, you know."
"It will never come to any good, got in that way,—never."
"But, Aunt Stanbury, isn't it good of him to send it?"
"I don't know. I suppose it's better than drinking, and smoking, and gambling. But I dare say he gets enough for that too. When a man, born and bred like a gentleman, condescends to let out his talents and education for such purposes, I dare say they are willing enough to pay him. The devil always does pay high wages. But that only makes it so much the worse. One almost comes to doubt whether any one ought to learn to write at all, when it is used for such vile purposes. I've said what I've got to say, and I don't mean to say anything more. What's the use? But it has been hard upon me,—very. It was my money did it, and I feel I've misused it. It's a disgrace to me which I don't deserve."
For a couple of minutes Dorothy remained quite silent, and Miss Stanbury did not herself say anything further. Nor during that time did she observe her niece, or she would probably have seen that the subject was not to be dropped. Dorothy, though she was silent, was not calm, and was preparing herself for a crusade in her brother's defence.
"Aunt Stanbury, he's my brother, you know."
"Of course he's your brother. I wish he were not."
"I think him the best brother in the world,—and the best son."
"Why does he sell himself to write sedition?"
"He doesn't sell himself to write sedition. I don't see why it should be sedition, or anything wicked, because it's sold for a penny."
"If you are going to cram him down my throat, Dorothy, you and I had better part."
"I don't want to say anything about him, only you ought—not—to abuse him—before me." By this time Dorothy was beginning to sob, but Miss Stanbury's countenance was still very grim and very stern. "He's coming home to Nuncombe Putney, and I want to—see—see him," continued Dorothy.
"Hugh Stanbury coming to Exeter! He won't come here."
"Then I'd rather go home, Aunt Stanbury."
"Very well, very well," said Miss Stanbury, and she got up and left the room.
Dorothy was in dismay, and began to think that there was nothing for her to do but to pack up her clothes and prepare for her departure. She was very sorry for what had occurred, being fully alive to the importance of the aid not only to herself, but to her mother and sister, which was afforded by the present arrangement, and she felt very angry with herself, in that she had already driven her aunt to quarrel with her. But she had found it to be impossible to hear her own brother abused without saying a word on his behalf. She did not see her aunt again till dinner-time, and then there was hardly a word uttered. Once or twice Dorothy made a little effort to speak, but these attempts failed utterly. The old woman would hardly reply even by a monosyllable, but simply muttered something, or shook her head when she was addressed. Jane, who waited at table, was very demure and silent, and Martha, who once came into the room during the meal, merely whispered a word into Miss Stanbury's ear. When the cloth was removed, and two glasses of port had been poured out by Miss Stanbury herself, Dorothy felt that she could endure this treatment no longer. How was it possible that she could drink wine under such circumstances?
"Not for me, Aunt Stanbury," said she, with a deploring tone.
"I couldn't drink it to-day."
"Why didn't you say so before it was poured out? And why not to-day? Come, drink it. Do as I bid you." And she stood over her niece, as a tragedy queen in a play with a bowl of poison. Dorothy took it and sipped it from mere force of obedience. "You make as many bones about a glass of port wine as though it were senna and salts," said Miss Stanbury. "Now I've got something to say to you." By this time the servant was gone, and the two were seated alone together in the parlour. Dorothy, who had not as yet swallowed above half her wine, at once put the glass down. There was an importance in her aunt's tone which frightened her, and made her feel that some evil was coming. And yet, as she had made up her mind that she must return home, there was no further evil that she need dread. "You didn't write any of those horrid articles?" said Miss Stanbury.
"No, aunt; I didn't write them. I shouldn't know how."
"And I hope you'll never learn. They say women are to vote, and become doctors, and if so, there's no knowing what devil's tricks they mayn't do. But it isn't your fault about that filthy newspaper. How he can let himself down to write stuff that is to be printed on straw is what I can't understand."
"I don't see how it can make a difference as he writes it."
"It would make a great deal of difference to me. And I'm told that what they call ink comes off on your fingers like lamp-black. I never touched one, thank God; but they tell me so. All the same; it isn't your fault."
"I've nothing to do with it, Aunt Stanbury."
"Of course you've not. And as he is your brother it wouldn't be natural that you should like to throw him off. And, my dear, I like you for taking his part. Only you needn't have been so fierce with an old woman."
"Indeed—indeed I didn't mean to be—fierce, Aunt Stanbury."
"I never was taken up so short in my life. But we won't mind that. There; he shall come and see you. I suppose he won't insist on leaving any of his nastiness about."
"But is he to come here, Aunt Stanbury?"
"He may if he pleases."
"Oh, Aunt Stanbury!"
"When he was here last he generally had a pipe in his mouth, and I dare say he never puts it down at all now. Those things grow upon young people so fast. But if he could leave it on the door-step just while he's here I should be obliged to him."
"But, dear aunt, couldn't I see him in the street?"
"Out in the street! No, my dear. All the world is not to know that he's your brother; and he is dressed in such a rapscallion manner that the people would think you were talking to a house-breaker." Dorothy's face became again red as she heard this, and the angry words were very nearly spoken. "The last time I saw him," continued Miss Stanbury, "he had on a short, rough jacket, with enormous buttons, and one of those flipperty-flopperty things on his head, that the butcher-boys wear. And, oh, the smell of tobacco! As he had been up in London I suppose he thought Exeter was no better than a village, and he might do just as he pleased. But he knew that if I'm particular about anything, it is about a gentleman's hat in the streets. And he wanted me—me!—to walk with him across to Mrs. MacHugh's! We should have been hooted about the Close like a pair of mad dogs;—and so I told him."
"All the young men seem to dress like that now, Aunt Stanbury."
"No, they don't. Mr. Gibson doesn't dress like that."
"But he's a clergyman, Aunt Stanbury."
"Perhaps I'm an old fool. I dare say I am, and of course that's what you mean. At any rate I'm too old to change, and I don't mean to try. I like to see a difference between a gentleman and a house-breaker. For the matter of that I'm told that there is a difference, and that the house-breakers all look like gentlemen now. It may be proper to make us all stand on our heads, with our legs sticking up in the air; but I for one don't like being topsy-turvey, and I won't try it. When is he to reach Exeter?"
"He is coming on Tuesday next, by the last train."
"Then you can't see him that night. That's out of the question. No doubt he'll sleep at the Nag's Head, as that's the lowest radical public-house in the city. Martha shall try to find him. She knows more about his doings than I do. If he chooses to come here the following morning before he goes down to Nuncombe Putney, well and good. I shall wait up till Martha comes back from the train on Tuesday night, and hear." Dorothy was of course full of gratitude and thanks; but yet she felt almost disappointed by the result of her aunt's clemency on the matter. She had desired to take her brother's part, and it had seemed to her as though she had done so in a very lukewarm manner. She had listened to an immense number of accusations against him, and had been unable to reply to them because she had been conquered by the promise of a visit. And now it was out of the question that she should speak of going. Her aunt had given way to her, and of course had conquered her.
Late on the Tuesday evening, after ten o'clock, Hugh Stanbury was walking round the Close with his aunt's old servant. He had not put up at that dreadfully radical establishment of which Miss Stanbury was so much afraid, but had taken a bed-room at the Railway Inn. From there he had walked up to the Close with Martha, and now was having a few last words with her before he would allow her to return to the house.
"I suppose she'd as soon see the devil as see me," said Hugh.
"If you speak in that way, Mr. Hugh, I won't listen to you."
"And yet I did everything I could to please her; and I don't think any boy ever loved an old woman better than I did her."
"That was while she used to send you cakes, and ham, and jam to school, Mr. Hugh."
"Of course it was, and while she sent me flannel waistcoats to Oxford. But when I didn't care any longer for cakes or flannel then she got tired of me. It is much better as it is, if she'll only be good to Dorothy."
"She never was bad to anybody, Mr. Hugh. But I don't think an old lady like her ever takes to a young woman as she does to a young man, if only he'll let her have a little more of her own way than you would. It's my belief that you might have had it all for your own some day, if you'd done as you ought."
"That's nonsense, Martha. She means to leave it all to the Burgesses. I've heard her say so."
"Say so; yes. People don't always do what they say. If you'd managed rightly you might have it all;—and so you might now."
"I'll tell you what, old girl; I shan't try. Live for the next twenty years under her apron strings, that I may have the chance at the end of it of cutting some poor devil out of his money! Do you know the meaning of making a score off your own bat, Martha?"
"No, I don't; and if it's anything you're like to do, I don't think I should be the better for learning,—by all accounts. And now if you please, I'll go in."
"Good night, Martha. My love to them both, and say I'll be there to-morrow exactly at half-past nine. You'd better take it. It won't turn to slate-stone. It hasn't come from the old gentleman."
"I don't want anything of that kind, Mr. Hugh;—indeed I don't."
"Nonsense. If you don't take it you'll offend me. I believe you think I'm not much better than a schoolboy still."
"I don't think you're half so good, Mr. Hugh," said the old servant, sticking the sovereign which Hugh had given her in under her glove as she spoke.
On the next morning that other visit was made at the brick house, and Miss Stanbury was again in a fuss. On this occasion, however, she was in a much better humour than before, and was full of little jokes as to the nature of the visitation. Of course, she was not to see her nephew herself, and no message was to be delivered from her, and none was to be given to her from him. But an accurate report was to be made to her as to his appearance, and Dorothy was to be enabled to answer a variety of questions respecting him after he was gone. "Of course, I don't want to know anything about his money," Miss Stanbury said, "only I should like to know how much these people can afford to pay for their penny trash." On this occasion she had left the room and gone up-stairs before the knock came at the door, but she managed, by peeping over the balcony, to catch a glimpse of the "flipperty-flopperty" hat which her nephew certainly had with him on this occasion.
Hugh Stanbury had great news for his sister. The cottage in which Mrs. Stanbury lived at Nuncombe Putney, was the tiniest little dwelling in which a lady and her two daughters ever sheltered themselves. There was, indeed, a sitting-room, two bed-rooms, and a kitchen; but they were all so diminutive in size that the cottage was little more than a cabin. But there was a house in the village, not large indeed, but eminently respectable, three stories high, covered with ivy, having a garden behind it, and generally called the Clock House, because there had once been a clock upon it. This house had been lately vacated, and Hugh informed his sister that he was thinking of taking it for his mother's accommodation. Now, the late occupants of the Clock House, at Nuncombe Putney, had been people with five or six hundred a year. Had other matters been in accordance, the house would almost have entitled them to consider themselves as county people. A gardener had always been kept there,—and a cow!
"The Clock House for mamma!"
"Well, yes. Don't say a word about it as yet to Aunt Stanbury, as she'll think that I've sold myself altogether to the old gentleman."
"But, Hugh, how can mamma live there?"
"The fact is, Dorothy, there is a secret. I can't tell you quite yet. Of course, you'll know it, and everybody will know it, if the thing comes about. But as you won't talk, I will tell you what most concerns ourselves."
"And am I to go back?"
"Certainly not,—if you will take my advice. Stick to your aunt. You don't want to smoke pipes, and wear Tom-and-Jerry hats, and write for the penny newspapers."
Now Hugh Stanbury's secret was this;—that Louis Trevelyan's wife and sister-in-law were to leave the house in Curzon Street, and come and live at Nuncombe Putney, with Mrs. Stanbury and Priscilla. Such, at least, was the plan to be carried out, if Hugh Stanbury should be successful in his present negotiations.