Half an hour after the proper time, when the others had finished their tea and bread and butter, Nora Rowley came down among them pale as a ghost. Her sister had gone to her while she was dressing, but she had declared that she would prefer to be alone. She would be down directly, she had said, and had completed her toilet without even the assistance of her maid. She drank her cup of tea and pretended to eat her toast; and then sat herself down, very wretchedly, to think of it all again. It had been all within her grasp,—all of which she had ever dreamed! And now it was gone! Each of her three companions strove from time to time to draw her into conversation, but she seemed to be resolute in her refusal. At first, till her utter prostration had become a fact plainly recognised by them all, she made some little attempt at an answer when a direct question was asked of her; but after a while she only shook her head, and was silent, giving way to absolute despair.
Late in the evening she went out into the garden, and Priscilla followed her. It was now the end of July, and the summer was in its glory. The ladies, during the day, would remain in the drawing-room with the windows open and the blinds down, and would sit in the evening reading and working, or perhaps pretending to read and work, under the shade of a cedar which stood upon the lawn. No retirement could possibly be more secluded than was that of the garden of the Clock House. No stranger could see into it, or hear sounds from out of it. Though it was not extensive, it was so well furnished with those charming garden shrubs which, in congenial soils, become large trees, that one party of wanderers might seem to be lost from another amidst its walls. On this evening Mrs. Stanbury and Mrs. Trevelyan had gone out as usual, but Priscilla had remained with Nora Rowley. After a while Nora also got up and went through the window all alone. Priscilla, having waited for a few minutes, followed her; and caught her in a long green walk that led round the bottom of the orchard.
"What makes you so wretched?" she said.
"Why do you say I am wretched?"
"Because it's so visible. How is one to go on living with you all day and not notice it?"
"I wish you wouldn't notice it. I don't think it kind of you to notice it. If I wanted to talk of it, I would say so."
"It is better generally to speak of a trouble than to keep it to oneself," said Priscilla.
"All the same, I would prefer not to speak of mine," said Nora.
Then they parted, one going one way and one the other, and Priscilla was certainly angry at the reception which had been given to the sympathy which she had proffered. The next day passed almost without a word spoken between the two. Mrs. Stanbury had not ventured as yet to mention to her guest the subject of the rejected lover, and had not even said much on the subject to Mrs. Trevelyan. Between the two sisters there had been, of course, some discussion on the matter. It was impossible that it should be allowed to pass without it; but such discussions always resulted in an assertion on the part of Nora that she would not be scolded. Mrs. Trevelyan was very tender with her, and made no attempt to scold her,—tried, at last, simply to console her; but Nora was so continually at work scolding herself, that every word spoken to her on the subject of Mr. Glascock's visit seemed to her to carry with it a rebuke.
But on the second day she herself accosted Priscilla Stanbury. "Come into the garden," she said, when they two were for a moment alone together; "I want to speak to you." Priscilla, without answering, folded up her work and put on her hat. "Come down to the green walk," said Nora. "I was savage to you last night, and I want to beg your pardon."
"You were savage," said Priscilla, smiling, "and you shall have my pardon. Who would not pardon you any offence, if you asked it?"
"I am so miserable!" she said.
"I don't know. I can't tell. And it is of no use talking about it now, for it is all over. But I ought not to have been cross to you, and I am very sorry."
"That does not signify a straw; only so far, that when I have been cross, and have begged a person's pardon,—which I don't do as often as I ought,—I always feel that it begets kindness. If I could help you in your trouble I would."
"You can't fetch him back again."
"You mean Mr. Glascock. Shall I go and try?"
Nora smiled and shook her head. "I wonder what he would say if you asked him. But if he came I should do the same thing."
"I do not in the least know what you have done, my dear. I only see that you mope about, and are more down in the mouth than any one ought to be, unless some great trouble has come."
"A great trouble has come."
"I suppose you have had your choice,—either to accept your lover or to reject him."
"No; I have not had my choice."
"It seems to me that no one has dictated to you; or, at least, that you have obeyed no dictation."
"Of course, I can't explain it to you. It is impossible that I should."
"If you mean that you regret what you have done because you have been false to the man, I can sympathise with you. No one has ever a right to be false, and if you are repenting a falsehood, I will willingly help you to eat your ashes and to wear your sackcloth. But if you are repenting a truth—"
"Then you must eat your ashes by yourself, for me; and I do not think that you will ever be able to digest them."
"I do not want anybody to help me," said Nora proudly.
"Nobody can help you, if I understand the matter rightly. You have got to get the better of your own covetousness and evil desires, and you are in the fair way to get the better of them if you have already refused to be this man's wife because you could not bring yourself to commit the sin of marrying him when you did not love him. I suppose that is about the truth of it; and indeed, indeed, I do sympathise with you. If you have done that, though it is no more than the plainest duty, I will love you for it. One finds so few people that will do any duty that taxes their self-indulgence."
"But he did not ask me to marry him."
"Then I do not understand anything about it."
"He asked me to love him."
"But he meant you to be his wife?"
"Oh yes;—he meant that of course."
"And what did you say?" asked Priscilla.
"That I didn't love him," replied Nora.
"And that was the truth?"
"Yes;—it was the truth."
"And what do you regret?—that you didn't tell him a lie?"
"No;—not that," said Nora slowly.
"What then? You cannot regret that you have not basely deceived a man who has treated you with a loving generosity?" They walked on silent for a few yards, and then Priscilla repeated her question. "You cannot mean that you are sorry that you did not persuade yourself to do evil?"
"I don't want to go back to the islands, and to lose myself there, and to be nobody;—that is what I mean. And I might have been so much! Could one step from the very highest rung of the ladder to the very lowest and not feel it?"
"But you have gone up the ladder,—if you only knew it," said Priscilla. "There was a choice given to you between the foulest mire of the clay of the world, and the sun-light of the very God. You have chosen the sun-light, and you are crying after the clay! I cannot pity you; but I can esteem you, and love you, and believe in you. And I do. You'll get yourself right at last, and there's my hand on it, if you'll take it." Nora took the hand that was offered to her, held it in her own for some seconds, and then walked back to the house and up to her own room in silence.
The post used to come into Nuncombe Putney at about eight in the morning, carried thither by a wooden-legged man who rode a donkey. There is a general understanding that the wooden-legged men in country parishes should be employed as postmen, owing to the great steadiness of demeanour which a wooden leg is generally found to produce. It may be that such men are slower in their operations than would be biped postmen; but as all private employers of labour demand labourers with two legs, it is well that the lame and halt should find a refuge in the less exacting service of the government. The one-legged man who rode his donkey into Nuncombe Putney would reach his post-office not above half an hour after his proper time; but he was very slow in stumping round the village, and seldom reached the Clock House much before ten. On a certain morning two or three days after the conversation just recorded it was past ten when he brought two letters to the door, one for Mrs. Trevelyan, and one for Mrs. Stanbury. The ladies had finished their breakfast, and were seated together at an open window. As was usual, the letters were given into Priscilla's hands, and the newspaper which accompanied them into those of Mrs. Trevelyan, its undoubted owner. When her letter was handed to her, she looked at the address closely and then walked away with it into her own room.
"I think it's from Louis," said Nora, as soon as the door was closed. "If so, he is telling her to come back."
"Mamma, this is for you," said Priscilla. "It is from Aunt Stanbury. I know her handwriting."
"From your aunt? What can she be writing about? There is something wrong with Dorothy." Mrs. Stanbury held the letter but did not open it. "You had better read it, my dear. If she is ill, pray let her come home."
But the letter spoke of nothing amiss as regarded Dorothy, and did not indeed even mention Dorothy's name. Luckily Priscilla read the letter in silence, for it was an angry letter. "What is it, Priscilla? Why don't you tell me? Is anything wrong?" said Mrs. Stanbury.
"Nothing is wrong, mamma,—except that my aunt is a silly woman."
"Goodness me! what is it?"
"It is a family matter," said Nora smiling, "and I will go."
"What can it be?" demanded Mrs. Stanbury again as soon as Nora had left the room.
"You shall hear what it can be. I will read it you," said Priscilla.
"It seems to me that of all the women that ever lived my Aunt
Stanbury is the most prejudiced, the most unjust, and the most given
to evil thinking of her neighbours. This is what she has thought fit
to write to you, mamma." Then Priscilla read her aunt's letter, which
was as follows:—
The Close, Exeter, July 31, 186—.
Dear Sister Stanbury,
I am informed that the lady who is living with you because she could not continue to live under the same roof with her lawful husband, has received a visit at your house from a gentleman who was named as her lover before she left her own. I am given to understand that it was because of this gentleman's visits to her in London, and because she would not give up seeing him, that her husband would not live with her any longer.
"But the man has never been here at all," said Mrs. Stanbury, in dismay.
"Of course he has not been here. But let me go on."
I have got nothing to do with your visitors, [continued the letter] and I should not interfere but for the credit of the family. There ought to be somebody to explain to you that much of the abominable disgrace of the whole proceeding will rest upon you, if you permit such goings on in your house. I suppose it is your house. At any rate you are regarded as the mistress of the establishment, and it is for you to tell the lady that she must go elsewhere. I do hope that you have done so, or at least that you will do so now. It is intolerable that the widow of my brother,—a clergyman,—should harbour a lady who is separated from her husband and who receives visits from a gentleman who is reputed to be her lover. I wonder much that your eldest daughter should countenance such a proceeding.
Mrs. Stanbury, when the letter had been read to her, held up both her hands in despair. "Dear, dear," she exclaimed. "Oh, dear!"
"She had such pleasure in writing it," said Priscilla, "that one ought hardly to begrudge it her." The blackest spot in the character of Priscilla Stanbury was her hatred for her aunt in Exeter. She knew that her aunt had high qualities, and yet she hated her aunt. She was well aware that her aunt was regarded as a shining light by very many good people in the county, and yet she hated her aunt. She could not but acknowledge that her aunt had been generous to her brother, and was now very generous to her sister, and yet she hated her aunt. It was now a triumph to her that her aunt had fallen into so terrible a quagmire, and she was by no means disposed to let the sinning old woman easily out of it.
"It is as pretty a specimen," she said, "as I ever knew of malice and eaves-dropping combined."
"Don't use such hard words, my dear."
"Look at her words to us," said Priscilla. "What business has she to talk to you about the credit of the family and abominable disgrace? You have held your head up in poverty, while she has been rolling in money."
"She has been very good to Hugh,—and now to Dorothy."
"If I were Dorothy I would have none of her goodness. She likes some one to trample on,—some one of the name to patronise. She shan't trample on you and me, mamma."
Then there was a discussion as to what should be done; or rather a discourse in which Priscilla explained what she thought fit to do. Nothing, she decided, should be said to Mrs. Trevelyan on the subject; but an answer should be sent to Aunt Stanbury. Priscilla herself would write this answer, and herself would sign it. There was some difference of opinion on this point, as Mrs. Stanbury thought that if she might be allowed to put her name to it, even though Priscilla should write it, the wording of it would be made, in some degree, mild,—to suit her own character. But her daughter was imperative, and she gave way.
"It shall be mild enough in words," said Priscilla, "and very short."
Then she wrote her letter as follows:—
Nuncombe Putney, August 1, 186—.
Dear Aunt Stanbury,
You have found a mare's nest. The gentleman you speak of has never been here at all, and the people who bring you news have probably hoaxed you. I don't think that mamma has ever disgraced the family, and you can have no reason for thinking that she ever will. You should, at any rate, be sure of what you are saying before you make such cruel accusations.
P.S.—Another gentleman did call here,—not to see Mrs. Trevelyan; but I suppose mamma's house need not be closed against all visitors.
Poor Dorothy had passed evil hours from the moment in which her aunt had so far certified herself as to Colonel Osborne's visit to Nuncombe as to make her feel it to be incumbent on her to interfere. After much consideration Miss Stanbury had told her niece the dreadful news, and had told also what she intended to do. Dorothy, who was in truth horrified at the iniquity of the fact which was related, and who never dreamed of doubting the truth of her aunt's information, hardly knew how to interpose. "I am sure mamma won't let there be anything wrong," she had said.
"And you don't call this wrong?" said Miss Stanbury, in a tone of indignation.
"But perhaps mamma will tell them to go."
"I hope she will. I hope she has. But he was allowed to be there for hours. And now three days have passed and there is no sign of anything being done. He came and went and may come again when he pleases." Still Dorothy pleaded. "I shall do my duty," said Miss Stanbury.
"I am quite sure mamma will do nothing wrong," said Dorothy. But the letter was written and sent, and the answer to the letter reached the house in the Close in due time.
When Miss Stanbury had read and re-read the very short reply which her niece had written, she became at first pale with dismay, and then red with renewed vigour and obstinacy. She had made herself, as she thought, quite certain of her facts before she had acted on her information. There was some equivocation, some most unworthy deceit in Priscilla's letter. Or could it be possible that she herself had been mistaken? Another gentleman had been there;—not, however, with the object of seeing Mrs. Trevelyan! So said Priscilla. But she had made herself sure that the man in question was a man from London, a middle-aged man from London, who had specially asked for Mrs. Trevelyan, and who had at once been known to Mrs. Clegg, at the Lessboro' inn, to be Mrs. Trevelyan's lover. Miss Stanbury was very unhappy, and at last sent for Giles Hickbody. Giles Hickbody had never pretended to know the name. He had seen the man and had described him, "Quite a swell, ma'am; and a Lon'oner, and one as'd be up to anything; but not a young 'un; no, not just a young 'un, zartainly." He was cross-examined again now, and said that all he knew about the man's name was that there was a handle to it. This was ended by Miss Stanbury sending him down to Lessboro' to learn the very name of the gentleman, and by his coming back with that of the Honourable George Glascock written on a piece of paper. "They says now as he was arter the other young 'ooman," said Giles Hickbody. Then was the confusion of Miss Stanbury complete.
It was late when Giles returned from Lessboro', and nothing could be done that night. It was too late to write a letter for the next morning's post. Miss Stanbury, who was as proud of her own discrimination as she was just and true, felt that a day of humiliation had indeed come for her. She hated Priscilla almost as vigorously as Priscilla hated her. To Priscilla she would not write to own her fault; but it was incumbent on her to confess it to Mrs. Stanbury. It was incumbent on her also to confess it to Dorothy. All that night she did not sleep, and the next morning she went about abashed, wretched, hardly mistress of her own maids. She must confess it also to Martha, and Martha would be very stern to her. Martha had pooh-poohed the whole story of the lover, seeming to think that there could be no reasonable objection to a lover past fifty.
"Dorothy," she said at last, about noon, "I have been over hasty about your mother and this man. I am sorry for it, and must—beg—everybody's—pardon."
"I knew mamma would do nothing wrong," said Dorothy.
"To do wrong is human, and she, I suppose, is not more free than others; but in this matter I was misinformed. I shall write and beg her pardon; and now I beg your pardon."
"Not mine, Aunt Stanbury."
"Yes, yours and your mother's, and the lady's also,—for against her
has the fault been most grievous. I shall write to your mother and
express my contrition." She put off the evil hour of writing as long
as she could, but before dinner the painful letter had been written,
and carried by herself to the post. It was as
The Close, August 3, 186—.
Dear Sister Stanbury,
I have now learned that the information was false on which my former letter was based. I am heartily sorry for any annoyance I may have given you. I can only inform you that my intentions were good and upright. Nevertheless, I humbly beg your pardon.
Mrs. Stanbury, when she received this, was inclined to let the matter
drop. That her sister-in-law should express such abject contrition
was to her such a lowering of the great ones of the earth, that the
apology conveyed to her more pain than pleasure. She could not hinder
herself from sympathising with all that her sister-in-law had felt
when she had found herself called upon to humiliate herself. But it
was not so with Priscilla. Mrs. Stanbury did not observe that her
daughter's name was scrupulously avoided in the apology; but
Priscilla observed it. She would not let the matter drop, without an
attempt at the last word. She therefore wrote back again as
Nuncombe Putney, August 4, 186—.
Dear Aunt Stanbury,
I am glad you have satisfied yourself about the gentleman who has so much disquieted you. I do not know that the whole affair would be worth a moment's consideration, were it not that mamma and I, living as we do so secluded a life, are peculiarly apt to feel any attack upon our good name,—which is pretty nearly all that is left to us. If ever there were women who should be free from attack, at any rate from those of their own family, we are such women. We never interfere with you, or with anybody; and I think you might abstain from harassing us by accusations.
Pray do not write to mamma in such a strain again, unless you are quite sure of your ground.
"Impudent!" said Miss Stanbury to Martha, when she had read the letter. "Ill-conditioned, impudent vixen!"
"She was provoked, miss," said Martha.
"Well; yes; yes;—and I suppose it is right that you should tell me of it. I dare say it is part of what I ought to bear for being an old fool, and too cautious about my own flesh and blood. I will bear it. There. I was wrong, and I will say that I have been justly punished. There,—there!"
How very much would Miss Stanbury's tone have been changed had she known that at that very moment Colonel Osborne was eating his breakfast at Mrs. Crocket's inn, in Nuncombe Putney!