It was true that most ill-natured things had been said at Lessboro' and at Nuncombe Putney about Mrs. Stanbury and the visitors at the Clock House, and that these ill-natured things had spread themselves to Exeter. Mrs. Ellison of Lessboro', who was not the most good-natured woman in the world, had told Mrs. Merton of Nuncombe that she had been told that the Colonel's visit to the lady had been made by express arrangement between the Colonel and Mrs. Stanbury. Mrs. Merton, who was very good-natured, but not the wisest woman in the world, had declared that any such conduct on the part of Mrs. Stanbury was quite impossible. "What does it matter which it is,—Priscilla or her mother?" Mrs. Ellison had said. "These are the facts. Mrs. Trevelyan has been sent there to be out of the way of this Colonel; and the Colonel immediately comes down and sees her at the Clock House. But when people are very poor they do get driven to do almost anything."
Mrs. Merton, not being very wise, had conceived it to be her duty to repeat this to Priscilla; and Mrs. Ellison, not being very good-natured, had conceived it to be hers to repeat it to Mrs. MacHugh at Exeter. And then Bozzle's coming had become known.
"Yes, Mrs. MacHugh, a policeman in mufti down at Nuncombe! I wonder what our friend in the Close here will think about it! I have always said, you know, that if she wanted to keep things straight at Nuncombe, she should have opened her purse-strings."
From all which it may be understood, that Priscilla Stanbury's desire to go back to their old way of living had not been without reason.
It may be imagined that Miss Stanbury of the Close did not receive with equanimity the reports which reached her. And, of course, when she discussed the matter either with Martha or with Dorothy, she fell back upon her own early appreciation of the folly of the Clock House arrangement. Nevertheless, she had called Mrs. Ellison very bad names, when she learned from her friend Mrs. MacHugh what reports were being spread by the lady from Lessboro'.
"Mrs. Ellison! Yes; we all know Mrs. Ellison. The bitterest tongue in Devonshire, and the falsest! There are some people at Lessboro' who would be well pleased if she paid her way there as well as those poor women do at Nuncombe. I don't think much of what Mrs. Ellison says."
"But it is bad about the policeman," said Mrs. MacHugh.
"Of course it's bad. It's all bad. I'm not saying that it's not bad. I'm glad I've got this other young woman out of it. It's all that young man's doing. If I had a son of my own, I'd sooner follow him to the grave than hear him call himself a Radical."
Then, on a sudden, there came to the Close news that Mrs. Trevelyan and her sister were gone. On the very Monday on which they went, Priscilla sent a note on to her sister, in which no special allusion was made to Aunt Stanbury, but which was no doubt written with the intention that the news should be communicated.
"Gone; are they? As it is past wishing that they hadn't come, it's the best thing they could do now. And who is to pay the rent of the house, now they have gone?" As this was a point on which Dorothy was not prepared to trouble herself at present, she made no answer to the question.
Dorothy at this time was in a state of very great perturbation on her own account. The reader may perhaps remember that she had been much startled by a proposition that had been made to her in reference to her future life. Her aunt had suggested to her that she should become—Mrs. Gibson. She had not as yet given any answer to that proposition, and had indeed found it to be quite impossible to speak about it at all. But there can be no doubt that the suggestion had opened out to her altogether new views of life. Up to the moment of her aunt's speech to her, the idea of her becoming a married woman had never presented itself to her. In her humility it had not occurred to her that she should be counted as one among the candidates for matrimony. Priscilla had taught her to regard herself,—indeed, they had both so regarded themselves,—as born to eat and drink, as little as might be, and then to die. Now, when she was told that she could, if she pleased, become Mrs. Gibson, she was almost lost in a whirl of new and confused ideas. Since her aunt had spoken, Mr. Gibson himself had dropped a hint or two which seemed to her to indicate that he also must be in the secret. There had been a party, with a supper, at Mrs. Crumbie's, at which both the Miss Frenches had been present. But Mr. Gibson had taken her, Dorothy Stanbury, out to supper, leaving both Camilla and Arabella behind him in the drawing-room! During the quarter of an hour afterwards in which the ladies were alone while the gentlemen were eating and drinking, both Camilla and Arabella continued to wreak their vengeance. They asked questions about Mrs. Trevelyan, and suggested that Mr. Gibson might be sent over to put things right. But Miss Stanbury had heard them, and had fallen upon them with a heavy hand.
"There's a good deal expected of Mr. Gibson, my dears," she said, "which it seems to me Mr. Gibson is not inclined to perform."
"It is quite indifferent to us what Mr. Gibson may be inclined to perform," said Arabella. "I'm sure we shan't interfere with Miss Dorothy."
As this was said quite out loud before all the other ladies, Dorothy was overcome with shame. But her aunt comforted her when they were again at home.
"Laws, my dear; what does it matter? When you're Mrs. Gibson, you'll be proud of it all."
Was it then really written in the book of the Fates that she, Dorothy Stanbury, was to become Mrs. Gibson? Poor Dorothy began to feel that she was called upon to exercise an amount of thought and personal decision to which she had not been accustomed. Hitherto, in the things which she had done, or left undone, she had received instructions which she could obey. Had her mother and Priscilla told her positively not to go to her aunt's house, she would have remained at Nuncombe without complaint. Had her aunt since her coming given her orders as to her mode of life,—enjoined, for instance, additional church attendances, or desired her to perform menial services in the house,—she would have obeyed, from custom, without a word. But when she was told that she was to marry Mr. Gibson, it did seem to her to be necessary to do something more than obey. Did she love Mr. Gibson? She tried hard to teach herself to think that she might learn to love him. He was a nice-looking man enough, with sandy hair, and a head rather bald, with thin lips, and a narrow nose, who certainly did preach drawling sermons; but of whom everybody said that he was a very excellent clergyman. He had a house and an income, and all Exeter had long since decided that he was a man who would certainly marry. He was one of those men of whom it may be said that they have no possible claim to remain unmarried. He was fair game, and unless he surrendered himself to be bagged before long, would subject himself to just and loud complaint. The Miss Frenches had been aware of this, and had thought to make sure of him among them. It was a little hard upon them that the old maid of the Close, as they always called Miss Stanbury, should interfere with them when their booty was almost won. And they felt it to be the harder because Dorothy Stanbury was, as they thought, so poor a creature. That Dorothy herself should have any doubt as to accepting Mr. Gibson, was an idea that never occurred to them. But Dorothy had her doubts. When she came to think of it, she remembered that she had never as yet spoken a word to Mr. Gibson, beyond such little trifling remarks as are made over a tea-table. She might learn to love him, but she did not think that she loved him as yet.
"I don't suppose all this will make any difference to Mr. Gibson," said Miss Stanbury to her niece, on the morning after the receipt of Priscilla's note stating that the Trevelyans had left Nuncombe.
Dorothy always blushed when Mr. Gibson's name was mentioned, and she blushed now. But she did not at all understand her aunt's allusion. "I don't know what you mean, aunt," she said.
"Well, you know, my dear, what they say about Mrs. Trevelyan and the Clock House is not very nice. If Mr. Gibson were to turn round and say that the connection wasn't pleasant, no one would have a right to complain."
The faint customary blush on Dorothy's cheeks which Mr. Gibson's name had produced now covered her whole face even up to the roots of her hair. "If he believes bad of mamma, I'm sure, Aunt Stanbury, I don't want to see him again."
"That's all very fine, my dear, but a man has to think of himself, you know."
"Of course he thinks of himself. Why shouldn't he? I dare say he thinks of himself more than I do."
"Dorothy, don't be a fool. A good husband isn't to be caught every day."
"Aunt Stanbury, I don't want to catch any man."
"Dorothy, don't be a fool."
"I must say it. I don't suppose Mr. Gibson thinks of me the least in the world."
"Psha! I tell you he does."
"But as for mamma and Priscilla, I never could like anybody for a moment who would be ashamed of them."
She was most anxious to declare that, as far as she knew herself and her own wishes at present, she entertained no partiality for Mr. Gibson,—no feeling which could become partiality even if Mr. Gibson was to declare himself willing to accept her mother and her sister with herself. But she did not dare to say so. There was an instinct within her which made it almost impossible to her to express an objection to a suitor before the suitor had declared himself to be one. She could speak out as touching her mother and her sister,—but as to her own feelings she could express neither assent nor dissent.
"I should like to have it settled soon," said Miss Stanbury, in a melancholy voice. Even to this Dorothy could make no reply. What did soon mean? Perhaps in the course of a year or two. "If it could be arranged by the end of this week, it would be a great comfort to me." Dorothy almost fell off her chair, and was stricken altogether dumb. "I told you, I think, that Brooke Burgess is coming here?"
"You said he was to come some day."
"He is to be here on Monday. I haven't seen him for more than twelve years; and now he's to be here next week? Dear, dear! When I think sometimes of all the hard words that have been spoken, and the harder thoughts that have been in people's minds, I often regret that the money ever came to me at all. I could have done without it, very well,—very well."
"But all the unpleasantness is over now, aunt."
"I don't know about that. Unpleasantness of that kind is apt to rankle long. But I wasn't going to give up my rights. Nobody but a coward does that. They talked of going to law and trying the will, but they wouldn't have got much by that. And then they abused me for two years. When they had done and got sick of it, I told them they should have it all back again as soon as I am dead. It won't be long now. This Burgess is the elder nephew, and he shall have it all."
"Is not he grateful?"
"No. Why should he be grateful? I don't do it for special love of him. I don't want his gratitude; nor anybody's gratitude. Look at Hugh. I did love him."
"I am grateful, Aunt Stanbury."
"Are you, my dear? Then show it by being a good wife to Mr. Gibson, and a happy wife. I want to get everything settled while Burgess is here. If he is to have it, why should I keep him out of it whilst I live? I wonder whether Mr. Gibson would mind coming and living here, Dolly?"
The thing was coming so near to her that Dorothy began to feel that she must, in truth, make up her mind, and let her aunt know also how it had been made up. She was sensible enough to perceive that if she did not prepare herself for the occasion she would find herself hampered by an engagement simply because her aunt had presumed that it was out of the question that she should not acquiesce. She would drift into marriage with Mr. Gibson against her will. Her greatest difficulty was the fact that her aunt clearly had no doubt on the subject. And as for herself, hitherto her feelings did not, on either side, go beyond doubts. Assuredly it would be a very good thing for her to become Mrs. Gibson, if only she could create for herself some attachment for the man. At the present moment her aunt said nothing more about Mr. Gibson, having her mind much occupied with the coming of Mr. Brooke Burgess.
"I remember him twenty years ago and more; as nice a boy as you would wish to see. His father was the fourth of the brothers. Dear, dear! Three of them are gone; and the only one remaining is old Barty, whom no one ever loved."
The Burgesses had been great people in Exeter, having been both bankers and brewers there, but the light of the family had paled; and though Bartholomew Burgess, of whom Miss Stanbury declared that no one had ever loved him, still had a share in the bank, it was well understood in the city that the real wealth in the firm of Cropper and Burgess belonged to the Cropper family. Indeed the most considerable portion of the fortune that had been realised by old Mr. Burgess had come into the possession of Miss Stanbury herself. Bartholomew Burgess had never forgiven his brother's will, and between him and Jemima Stanbury the feud was irreconcileable. The next brother, Tom Burgess, had been a solicitor at Liverpool, and had done well there. But Miss Stanbury knew nothing of the Tom Burgesses as she called them. The fourth brother, Harry Burgess, had been a clergyman, and this Brooke Burgess, Junior, who was now coming to the Close, had been left with a widowed mother, the eldest of a large family. It need not now be told at length how there had been ill-blood also between this clergyman and the heiress. There had been attempts at friendship, and at one time Miss Stanbury had received the Rev. Harry Burgess and all his family at the Close;—but the attempts had not been successful; and though our old friend had never wavered in her determination to leave the money all back to some one of the Burgess family, and with this view had made a pilgrimage to London some twelve years since, and had renewed her acquaintance with the widow and the children, still there had been no comfortable relations between her and any of the Burgess family. Old Barty Burgess, whom she met in the Close, or saw in the High Street every day of her life, was her great enemy. He had tried his best,—so at least she was convinced,—to drive her out of the pale of society, years upon years ago, by saying evil things of her. She had conquered in that combat. Her victory had been complete, and she had triumphed after a most signal fashion. But this triumph did not silence Barty's tongue, nor soften his heart. When she prayed to be forgiven, as she herself forgave others, she always exempted Barty Burgess from her prayers. There are things which flesh and blood cannot do. She had not liked Harry Burgess' widow, nor for the matter of that, Harry Burgess himself. When she had last seen the children she had not liked any of them much, and had had her doubts even as to Brooke. But with that branch of the family she was willing to try again. Brooke was now coming to the Close, having received, however, an intimation, that if, during his visit to Exeter, he chose to see his Uncle Barty, any such intercourse must be kept quite in the background. While he remained in Miss Stanbury's house he was to remain there as though there were no such person as Mr. Bartholomew Burgess in Exeter.
At this time Brooke Burgess was a man just turned thirty, and was a clerk in the Ecclesiastical Record Office, in Somerset House. No doubt the peculiar nature and name of the public department to which he was attached had done something to recommend him to Miss Stanbury. Ecclesiastical records were things greatly to be reverenced in her eyes, and she felt that a gentleman who handled them and dealt with them would probably be sedate, gentlemanlike, and conservative. Brooke Burgess, when she had last seen him, was just about to enter upon the duties of the office. Then there had come offence, and she had in truth known nothing of him from that day to this. The visitor was to be at Exeter on the following Monday, and very much was done in preparation of his coming. There was to be a dinner party on that very day, and dinner parties were not common with Miss Stanbury. She had, however, explained to Martha that she intended to put her best foot forward. Martha understood perfectly that Mr. Brooke Burgess was to be received as the heir of property. Sir Peter Mancrudy, the great Devonshire chemist, was coming to dinner, and Mr. and Mrs. Powel from Haldon,—people of great distinction in that part of the county,—Mrs. MacHugh of course; and, equally of course, Mr. Gibson. There was a deep discussion between Miss Stanbury and Martha as to asking two of the Cliffords, and Mr. and Mrs. Noel from Doddiscombeleigh. Martha had been very much in favour of having twelve. Miss Stanbury had declared that with twelve she must have two waiters from the greengrocer's, and that two waiters would overpower her own domesticities below stairs. Martha had declared that she didn't care about them any more than if they were puppy dogs. But Miss Stanbury had been quite firm against twelve. She had consented to have ten,—for the sake of artistic arrangement at the table; "They should be pantaloons and petticoats alternate, you know," she had said to Martha,—and had therefore asked the Cliffords. But the Cliffords could not come, and then she had declined to make any further attempt. Indeed, a new idea had struck her. Brooke Burgess, her guest, should sit at one end of the table, and Mr. Gibson, the clergyman, at the other. In this way the proper alternation would be effected. When Martha heard this, Martha quite understood the extent of the good fortune that was in store for Dorothy. If Mr. Gibson was to be welcomed in that way, it could only be in preparation of his becoming one of the family.
And Dorothy herself became aware that she must make up her mind. It was not so declared to her, but she came to understand that it was very probable that something would occur on the coming Monday which would require her to be ready with her answer on that day. And she was greatly tormented by feeling that if she could not bring herself to accept Mr. Gibson,—should Mr. Gibson propose to her, as to which she continued to tell herself that the chance of such a thing must be very remote indeed,—but that if he should propose to her, and if she could not accept him, her aunt ought to know that it would be so before the moment came. But yet she could not bring herself to speak to her aunt as though any such proposition were possible.
It happened that during the week, on the Saturday, Priscilla came into Exeter. Dorothy met her sister at the railway station, and then the two walked together two miles and back along the Crediton Road. Aunt Stanbury had consented to Priscilla coming to the Close, even though it was not the day appointed for such visits; but the walk had been preferred, and Dorothy felt that she would be able to ask for counsel from the only human being to whom she could have brought herself to confide the fact that a gentleman was expected to ask her to marry him. But it was not till they had turned upon their walk, that she was able to open her mouth on the subject even to her sister. Priscilla had been very full of their own cares at Nuncombe, and had said much of her determination to leave the Clock House and to return to the retirement of some small cottage. She had already written to Hugh to this effect, and during their walk had said much of her own folly in having consented to so great a change in their mode of life. At last Dorothy struck in with her story.
"Aunt Stanbury wants me to make a change too."
"What change?" asked Priscilla anxiously.
"It is not my idea, Priscilla, and I don't think that there can be anything in it. Indeed, I'm sure there isn't. I don't see how it's possible that there should be."
"But what is it, Dolly?"
"I suppose there can't be any harm in my telling you."
"If it's anything concerning yourself, I should say not. If it concerns Aunt Stanbury, I dare say she'd rather you held your tongue."
"It concerns me most," said Dorothy.
"She doesn't want you to leave her, does she?"
"Well; yes; no. By what she said last,—I shouldn't leave her at all in that way. Only I'm sure it's not possible."
"I am the worst hand in the world, Dolly, at guessing a riddle."
"You've heard of that Mr. Gibson, the clergyman;—haven't you?"
"Of course I have."
"Well—. Mind, you know, it's only what Aunt Stanbury says. He has never so much as opened his lips to me himself, except to say, 'How do you do?' and that kind of thing."
"Aunt Stanbury wants you to marry him?"
"Of course it's out of the question," said Dorothy, sadly.
"I don't see why it should be out of the question," said Priscilla proudly. "Indeed, if Aunt Stanbury has said much about it, I should say that Mr. Gibson himself must have spoken to her."
"Do you think he has?"
"I do not believe that my aunt would raise false hopes," said Priscilla.
"But I haven't any hopes. That is to say, I had never thought about such a thing."
"But you think about it now, Dolly?"
"I should never have dreamed about it, only for Aunt Stanbury."
"But, dearest, you are dreaming of it now, are you not?"
"Only because she says that it is to be so. You don't know how generous she is. She says that if it should be so, she will give me ever so much money;—two thousand pounds!"
"Then I am quite sure that she and Mr. Gibson must understand each other."
"Of course," said Dorothy, sadly, "if he were to think of such a thing at all, it would only be because the money would be convenient."
"Not at all," said Priscilla, sternly,—with a sternness that was very comfortable to her listener. "Not at all. Why should not Mr. Gibson love you as well as any man ever loved any woman? You are nice-looking,"—Dorothy blushed beneath her hat even at her sister's praise,—"and good-tempered, and lovable in every way. And I think you are just fitted to make a good wife. And you must not suppose, Dolly, that because Mr. Gibson wouldn't perhaps have asked you without the money, that therefore he is mercenary. It so often happens that a gentleman can't marry unless the lady has some money!"
"But he hasn't asked me at all."
"I suppose he will, dear."
"I only know what Aunt Stanbury says."
"You may be sure that he will ask you."
"And what must I say, Priscilla?"
"What must you say? Nobody can tell you that, dear, but yourself. Do you like him?"
"I don't dislike him."
"Is that all?"
"I know him so very little, Priscilla. Everybody says he is very good;—and then it's a great thing, isn't it, that he should be a clergyman?"
"I don't know about that."
"I think it is. If it were possible that I should ever marry any one, I should like a clergyman so much the best."
"Then you do know what to say to him."
"No, I don't, Priscilla. I don't know at all."
"Look here, dearest. What my aunt offers to you is a very great step in life. If you can accept this gentleman I think you would be happy;—and I think, also, which should be of more importance for your consideration, that you would make him happy. It is a brighter prospect, dear Dolly, than to live either with us at Nuncombe, or even with Aunt Stanbury as her niece."
"But if I don't love him, Priscilla?"
"Then give it up, and be as you are, my own own, dearest sister."
"So I will," said Dorothy, and at that time her mind was made up.