"I never knew one like her," said Miss Stanbury, "who, when she'd got away from one man, didn't want to have another dangling after her."
A week had hardly passed after the party at Mrs. MacHugh's, and Mrs. Trevelyan had hardly been three weeks at Nuncombe Putney, before the tidings which Miss Stanbury almost expected reached her ears.
"The Colonel's been at the Clock House, ma'am," said Martha.
Now, it was quite understood in the Close by this time that "the Colonel" meant Colonel Osborne.
"I'm told he has though, ma'am, for sure and certain."
"Who says so?"
"Giles Hickbody was down at Lessboro', and see'd him hisself,—a portly, middle-aged man,—not one of your young scampish-like lovers."
"That's the man."
"Oh, yes. He went over to Nuncombe Putney, as sure as anything;—hired Mrs. Clegg's chaise and pair, and asked for Mrs. Trevelyan's house as open as anything. When Giles asked in the yard, they told him as how that was the married lady's young man."
"I'd like to be at his tail,—so I would,—with a mop-handle," said Miss Stanbury, whose hatred for those sins by which the comfort and respectability of the world are destroyed, was not only sincere, but intense. "Well; and what then?"
"He came back and slept at Mrs. Clegg's that night,—at least, that was what he said he should do."
Miss Stanbury, however, was not so precipitate or uncharitable as to act strongly upon information such as this. Before she even said a word to Dorothy, she made further inquiry. She made very minute inquiry, writing even to her very old and intimate friend Mrs. Ellison, of Lessboro',—writing to that lady a most cautious and guarded letter. At last it became a fact proved to her mind that Colonel Osborne had been at the Clock House, had been received there, and had remained there for hours,—had been allowed access to Mrs. Trevelyan, and had slept the night at the inn at Lessboro'. The thing was so terrible to Miss Stanbury's mind, that even false hair, Dr. Colenso, and penny newspapers did not account for it.
"I shall begin to believe that the Evil One has been allowed to come among us in person because of our sins," she said to Martha;—and she meant it.
In the meantime, Mrs. Trevelyan, as may be remembered, had hired Mrs. Crocket's open carriage, and the three young women, Mrs. Trevelyan, Nora, and Priscilla, made a little excursion to Princetown, somewhat after the fashion of a picnic. At Princetown, in the middle of Dartmoor, about nine miles from Nuncombe Putney, is the prison establishment at which are kept convicts undergoing penal servitude. It is regarded by all the country round with great interest, chiefly because the prisoners now and again escape, and then there comes a period of interesting excitement until the escaped felon shall have been again taken. How can you tell where he may be, or whether it may not suit him to find his rest in your own cupboard, or under your own bed? And then, as escape without notice will of course be the felon's object, to attain that he will probably cut your throat, and the throat of everybody belonging to you. All which considerations give an interest to Princetown, and excite in the hearts of the Devonians of these parts a strong affection for the Dartmoor prison. Of those who visit Princetown comparatively few effect an entrance within the walls of the gaol. They look at the gloomy place with a mysterious interest, feeling something akin to envy for the prisoners who have enjoyed the privilege of solving the mysteries of prison life, and who know how men feel when they have their hair cut short, and are free from moral responsibility for their own conduct, and are moved about in gangs, and treated like wild beasts.
But the journey to Princetown, from whatever side it is approached, has the charm of wild and beautiful scenery. The spot itself is ugly enough; but you can go not thither without breathing the sweetest, freshest air, and encountering that delightful sense of romance which moorland scenery always produces. The idea of our three friends was to see the Moor rather than the prison, to learn something of the country around, and to enjoy the excitement of eating a sandwich sitting on a hillock, in exchange for the ordinary comforts of a good dinner with chairs and tables. A bottle of sherry and water and a paper of sandwiches contained their whole banquet; for ladies, though they like good things at picnics, and, indeed, at other times, almost as well as men like them, very seldom prepare dainties for themselves alone. Men are wiser and more thoughtful, and are careful to have the good things, even if they are to be enjoyed without companionship.
Mrs. Crocket's boy, though he was only about three feet high, was a miracle of skill and discretion. He used the machine, as the patent drag is called, in going down the hills with the utmost care. He never forced the beast beyond a walk if there was the slightest rise in the ground; and as there was always a rise, the journey was slow. But the three ladies enjoyed it thoroughly, and Mrs. Trevelyan was in better spirits than she herself had thought to be possible for her in her present condition. Most of us have recognised the fact that a dram of spirits will create,—that a so-called nip of brandy will create hilarity, or, at least, alacrity, and that a glass of sherry will often "pick up" and set in order the prostrate animal and mental faculties of the drinker. But we are not sufficiently alive to the fact that copious draughts of fresh air,—of air fresh and unaccustomed,—will have precisely the same effect. We do know that now and again it is very essential to "change the air;" but we generally consider that to do that with any chance of advantage, it is necessary to go far afield; and we think also that such change of the air is only needful when sickness of the body has come upon us, or when it threatens to come. We are seldom aware that we may imbibe long potations of pleasure and healthy excitement without perhaps going out of our own county; that such potations are within a day's journey of most of us; and that they are to be had for half-a-crown a head, all expenses told. Mrs. Trevelyan probably did not know that the cloud was lifted off her mind, and the load of her sorrow made light to her, by the special vigour of the air of the Moor; but she did know that she was enjoying herself, and that the world was pleasanter to her than it had been for months past.
When they had sat upon their hillocks, and eaten their sandwiches,—regretting that the basket of provisions had not been bigger,—and had drunk their sherry and water out of the little horn mug which Mrs. Crocket had lent them, Nora started off across the moorland alone. The horse had been left to be fed in Princetown, and they had walked back to a bush under which they had rashly left their basket of provender concealed. It happened, however, that on that day there was no escaped felon about to watch what they had done, and the food and the drink had been found secure. Nora had gone off, and as her sister and Priscilla sat leaning against their hillocks with their backs to the road, she could be seen standing now on one little eminence and now on another, thinking, doubtless, as she stood on the one how good it would be to be Lady Peterborough, and, as she stood on the other, how much better to be Mrs. Hugh Stanbury. Only,—before she could be Mrs. Hugh Stanbury it would be necessary that Mr. Hugh Stanbury should share her opinion,—and necessary also that he should be able to maintain a wife. "I should never do to be a very poor man's wife," she said to herself; and remembered as she said it, that in reference to the prospect of her being Lady Peterborough, the man who was to be Lord Peterborough was at any rate ready to make her his wife, and on that side there were none of those difficulties about house, and money, and position which stood in the way of the Hugh Stanbury side of the question. She was not, she thought, fit to be the wife of a very poor man; but she conceived of herself that she would do very well as a future Lady Peterborough in the drawing-rooms of Monkhams. She was so far vain as to fancy that she could look, and speak, and move, and have her being after the fashion which is approved for the Lady Peterboroughs of the world. It was not clear to her that Nature had not expressly intended her to be a Lady Peterborough; whereas, as far as she could see, Nature had not intended her to be a Mrs. Hugh Stanbury, with a precarious income of perhaps ten guineas a week when journalism was doing well. So she moved on to another little eminence to think of it there. It was clear to her that if she should accept Mr. Glascock she would sell herself, and not give herself away; and she had told herself scores of times before this, that a young woman should give herself away, and not sell herself;—should either give herself away, or keep herself to herself as circumstances might go. She had been quite sure that she would never sell herself. But this was a lesson which she had taught herself when she was very young, before she had come to understand the world and its hard necessities. Nothing, she now told herself, could be worse than to hang like a mill-stone round the neck of a poor man. It might be a very good thing to give herself away for love,—but it would not be a good thing to be the means of ruining the man she loved, even if that man were willing to be so ruined. And then she thought that she could also love that other man a little,—could love him sufficiently for comfortable domestic purposes. And it would undoubtedly be very pleasant to have all the troubles of her life settled for her. If she were Mrs. Glascock, known to the world as the future Lady Peterborough, would it not be within her power to bring her sister and her sister's husband again together? The tribute of the Monkhams' authority and influence to her sister's side of the question would be most salutary. She tried to make herself believe that in this way she would be doing a good deed. Upon the whole, she thought that if Mr. Glascock should give her another chance she would accept him. And he had distinctly promised that he would give her another chance. It might be that this unfortunate quarrel in the Trevelyan family would deter him. People do not wish to ally themselves with family quarrels. But if the chance came in her way she would accept it. She had made up her mind to that, when she turned round from off the last knoll on which she had stood, to return to her sister and Priscilla Stanbury.
They two had sat still under the shade of a thorn bush, looking at Nora as she was wandering about, and talking together more freely than they had ever done before on the circumstances that had brought them together. "How pretty she looks," Priscilla had said, as Nora was standing with her figure clearly marked by the light.
"Yes; she is very pretty, and has been much admired. This terrible affair of mine is a cruel blow to her."
"You mean that it is bad for her to come and live here—without society."
"Not exactly that,—though of course it would be better for her to go out. And I don't know how a girl is ever to get settled in the world unless she goes out. But it is always an injury to be connected in any way with a woman who is separated from her husband. It must be bad for you."
"It won't hurt me," said Priscilla. "Nothing of that kind can hurt me."
"I mean that people say such ill-natured things."
"I stand alone, and can take care of myself," said Priscilla. "I defy the evil tongues of all the world to hurt me. My personal cares are limited to an old gown and bread and cheese. I like a pair of gloves to go to church with, but that is only the remnant of a prejudice. The world has so very little to give me, that I am pretty nearly sure that it will take nothing away."
"And you are contented?"
"Well, no; I can't say that I am contented. I hardly think that anybody ought to be contented. Should my mother die and Dorothy remain with my aunt, or get married, I should be utterly alone in the world. Providence, or whatever you call it, has made me a lady after a fashion, so that I can't live with the ploughmen's wives, and at the same time has so used me in other respects, that I can't live with anybody else."
"Why should not you get married, as well as Dorothy?"
"Who would have me? And if I had a husband I should want a good one,—a man with a head on his shoulders, and a heart. Even if I were young and good-looking, or rich, I doubt whether I could please myself. As it is I am as likely to be taken bodily to heaven, as to become any man's wife."
"I suppose most women think so of themselves at some time, and yet they are married."
"I am not fit to marry. I am often cross, and I like my own way, and I have a distaste for men. I never in my life saw a man whom I wished even to make my intimate friend. I should think any man an idiot who began to make soft speeches to me, and I should tell him so."
"Ah; you might find it different when he went on with it."
"But I think," said Priscilla, "that when a woman is married there is nothing to which she should not submit on behalf of her husband."
"You mean that for me."
"Of course I mean it for you. How should I not be thinking of you, living as you are under the same roof with us? And I am thinking of Louey." Louey was the baby. "What are you to do when after a year or two his father shall send for him to have him under his own care?"
"Nothing shall separate me from my child," said Mrs. Trevelyan eagerly.
"That is easily said; but I suppose the power of doing as he pleased would be with him."
"Why should it be with him? I do not at all know that it would be with him. I have not left his house. It is he that has turned me out."
"There can, I think, be very little doubt what you should do," said Priscilla, after a pause, during which she had got up from her seat under the thorn bush.
"What should I do?" asked Mrs. Trevelyan.
"Go back to him."
"I will to-morrow if he will write and ask me. Nay; how could I help myself? I am his creature, and must go or come as he bids me. I am here only because he has sent me."
"You should write and ask him to take you."
"Ask him to forgive me because he has ill-treated me?"
"Never mind about that," said Priscilla, standing over her companion, who was still lying under the bush. "All that is twopenny-halfpenny pride, which should be thrown to the winds. The more right you have been hitherto the better you can afford to go on being right. What is it that we all live upon but self-esteem? When we want praise it is only because praise enables us to think well of ourselves. Every one to himself is the centre and pivot of all the world."
"It's a very poor world that goes round upon my pivot," said Mrs. Trevelyan.
"I don't know how this quarrel came up," exclaimed Priscilla, "and I don't care to know. But it seems a trumpery quarrel,—as to who should beg each other's pardon first, and all that kind of thing. Sheer and simple nonsense! Ask him to let it all be forgotten. I suppose he loves you?"
"How can I know? He did once."
"And you love him?"
"Yes. I love him certainly."
"I don't see how you can have a doubt. Here is Jack with the carriage, and if we don't mind he'll pass us by without seeing us."
Then Mrs. Trevelyan got up, and when they had succeeded in diverting Jack's attention for a moment from the horse, they called to Nora, who was still moving about from one knoll to another, and who showed no desire to abandon the contemplations in which she had been engaged.
It had been mid-day before they left home in the morning, and they were due to be at home in time for tea,—which is an epoch in the day generally allowed to be more elastic than some others. When Mrs. Stanbury lived in the cottage her hour for tea had been six; this had been stretched to half-past seven when she received Mrs. Trevelyan at the Clock House; and it was half-past eight before Jack landed them at their door. It was manifest to them all as they entered the house that there was an air of mystery in the face of the girl who had opened the door for them. She did not speak, however, till they were all within the passage. Then she uttered a few words very solemnly. "There be a gentleman come," she said.
"A gentleman!" said Mrs. Trevelyan, thinking in the first moment of her husband, and in the second of Colonel Osborne.
"He be for you, miss," said the girl, bobbing her head at Nora.
Upon hearing this Nora sank speechless into the chair which stood in the passage.