There came to be a very gloomy fortnight at Miss Stanbury's house in the Close. For two or three days after Mr. Gibson's dismissal at the hands of Miss Stanbury herself, Brooke Burgess was still in the house, and his presence saved Dorothy from the full weight of her aunt's displeasure. There was the necessity of looking after Brooke, and scolding him, and of praising him to Martha, and of dispraising him, and of seeing that he had enough to eat, and of watching whether he smoked in the house, and of quarrelling with him about everything under the sun, which together so employed Miss Stanbury that she satisfied herself with glances at Dorothy which were felt to be full of charges of ingratitude. Dorothy was thankful that it should be so, and bore the glances with abject submission. And then there was a great comfort to her in Brooke's friendship. On the second day after Mr. Gibson had gone she found herself talking to Brooke quite openly upon the subject. "The fact was, Mr. Burgess, that I didn't really care for him. I know he's very good and all that, and of course Aunt Stanbury meant it all for the best. And I would have done it if I could, but I couldn't." Brooke patted her on the back,—not in the flesh but in the spirit,—and told her that she was quite right. And he expressed an opinion too that it was not expedient to yield too much to Aunt Stanbury. "I would yield to her in anything that was possible to me," said Dorothy. "I won't," said he; "and I don't think I should do any good if I did. I like her, and I like her money. But I don't like either well enough to sell myself for a price."
A great part too of the quarrelling which went on from day to day between Brooke and Miss Stanbury was due to the difference of their opinions respecting Dorothy and her suitor. "I believe you put her up to it," said Aunt Stanbury.
"I neither put her up nor down, but I think that she was quite right."
"You've robbed her of a husband, and she'll never have another chance. After what you've done, you ought to take her yourself."
"I shall be ready to-morrow," said Brooke.
"How can you tell such a lie?" said Aunt Stanbury.
But after two or three days Brooke was gone to make a journey through the distant part of the county, and see the beauties of Devonshire. He was to be away for a fortnight, and then come back for a day or two before he returned to London. During that fortnight things did not go well with poor Dorothy at Exeter.
"I suppose you know your own business best," her aunt said to her one morning. Dorothy uttered no word of reply. She felt it to be equally impossible to suggest either that she did or that she did not know her own business best. "There may be reasons which I don't understand," exclaimed Aunt Stanbury; "but I should like to know what it is you expect."
"Why should I expect anything, Aunt Stanbury?"
"That's nonsense. Everybody expects something. You expect to have your dinner by-and-by,—don't you?"
"I suppose I shall," said Dorothy, to whom it occurred at the moment that such expectation was justified by the fact that on every day of her life hitherto some sort of a dinner had come in her way.
"Yes,—and you think it comes from heaven, I suppose."
"It comes by God's goodness and your bounty, Aunt Stanbury."
"And how will it come when I'm dead? Or how will it come if things should go in such a way that I can't stay here any longer? You don't ever think of that."
"I should go back to mamma, and Priscilla."
"Psha! As if two mouths were not enough to eat all the meal there is in that tub. If there was a word to say against the man, I wouldn't ask you to have him; if he drank, or smoked, or wasn't a gentleman, or was too poor, or anything you like. But there's nothing. It's all very well to tell me you don't love him, but why don't you love him? I don't like a girl to go and throw herself at a man's head, as those Frenches have done; but when everything has been prepared for you and made proper, it seems to me to be like turning away from good victuals." Dorothy could only offer to go home if she had offended her aunt, and then Miss Stanbury scolded her for making the offer. As this kind of thing went on at the house in the Close for a fortnight, during which there was no going out, and no society at home, Dorothy began to be rather tired of it.
At the end of the fortnight, on the morning of the day on which Brooke Burgess was expected back, Dorothy, slowly moving into the sitting room with her usual melancholy air, found Mr. Gibson talking to her aunt. "There she is herself," said Miss Stanbury, jumping up briskly, "and now you can speak to her. Of course I have no authority,—none in the least. But she knows what my wishes are." And, having so spoken, Miss Stanbury left the room.
It will be remembered that hitherto no word of affection had been whispered by Mr. Gibson into Dorothy's ears. When he came before to press his suit, she had been made aware of his coming, and had fled, leaving her answer with her aunt. Mr. Gibson had then expressed himself as somewhat injured, in that no opportunity of pouring forth his own eloquence had been permitted to him. On that occasion Miss Stanbury, being in a snubbing humour, had snubbed him. She had in truth scolded him almost as much as she had scolded Dorothy, telling him that he went about the business in hand as though butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. "You're stiff as a chair-back," she had said to him, with a few other compliments, and these amenities had for a while made him regard the establishment at Heavitree as being, at any rate, pleasanter than that in the Close. But since that cool reflection had come. The proposal was not that he should marry Miss Stanbury, senior, who certainly could be severe on occasions, but Miss Stanbury, junior, whose temper was as sweet as primroses in March. That which he would have to take from Miss Stanbury, senior, was a certain sum of money, as to which her promise was as good as any bond in the world. Things had come to such a pass with him in Exeter,—from the hints of his friend the Prebend, from a word or two which had come to him from the Dean, from certain family arrangements proposed to him by his mother and sisters,—things had come to such a pass that he was of a mind that he had better marry some one. He had, as it were, three strings to his bow. There were the two French strings, and there was Dorothy. He had not breadth of genius enough to suggest to himself that yet another woman might be found. There was a difficulty on the French score even about Miss Stanbury; but it was clear to him that, failing her, he was due to one of the two Miss Frenches. Now it was not only that the Miss Frenches were empty-handed, but he was beginning to think himself that they were not as nice as they might have been in reference to the arrangement of their head-gear. Therefore, having given much thought to the matter, and remembering that he had never yet had play for his own eloquence with Dorothy, he had come to Miss Stanbury asking that he might have another chance. It had been borne in upon him that he had perhaps hitherto regarded Dorothy as too certainly his own since she had been offered to him by her aunt,—as being a prize that required no eloquence in the winning; and he thought that if he could have an opportunity of amending that fault, it might even yet be well with his suit. So he prepared himself, and asked permission, and now found himself alone with the young lady.
"When last I was in this house, Miss Stanbury," he began, "I was not fortunate enough to be allowed an opportunity of pleading my cause to yourself." Then he paused, and Dorothy was left to consider how best she might answer him. All that her aunt had said to her had not been thrown away upon her. The calls upon that slender meal-tub at home she knew were quite sufficient. And Mr. Gibson was, she believed, a good man. And how better could she dispose of herself in life? And what was she that she should scorn the love of an honest gentleman? She would take him, she thought,—if she could. But then there came upon her, unconsciously, without work of thought, by instinct rather than by intelligence, a feeling of the closeness of a wife to her husband. Looking at it in general she could not deny that it would be very proper that she should become Mrs. Gibson. But when there came upon her a remembrance that she would be called upon for demonstration of her love,—that he would embrace her, and hold her to his heart, and kiss her,—she revolted and shuddered. She believed that she did not want to marry any man, and that such a state of things would not be good for her. "Dear young lady," continued Mr. Gibson, "you will let me now make up for the loss which I then experienced?"
"I thought it was better not to give you trouble," said Dorothy.
"Trouble, Miss Stanbury! How could it be trouble? The labour we delight in physics pain. But to go back to the subject-matter. I hope you do not doubt that my affection for you is true and honest, and genuine."
"I don't want to doubt anything, Mr. Gibson; but—"
"You needn't, dearest Miss Stanbury; indeed you needn't. If you could read my heart you would see written there true love very plainly;—very plainly. And do you not think it a duty that people should marry?" It may be surmised that he had here forgotten some connecting link which should have joined without abruptness the declaration of his own love, and his social view as to the general expediency of matrimony. But Dorothy did not discover the hiatus.
"Certainly,—when they like each other, and if their friends think it proper."
"Our friends think it proper, Miss Stanbury,—may I say Dorothy?—all of them. I can assure you that on my side you will be welcomed by a mother and sisters only too anxious to receive you with open arms. And as regards your own relations, I need hardly allude to your revered aunt. As to your own mother and sister,—and your brother, who, I believe, gives his mind chiefly to other things,—I am assured by Miss Stanbury that no opposition need be feared from them. Is that true, dearest Dorothy?"
"It is true."
"Does not all that plead in my behalf? Tell me, Dorothy."
"Of course it does."
"And you will be mine?" As far as eloquence could be of service, Mr. Gibson was sufficiently eloquent. To Dorothy his words appeared good, and true, and affecting. All their friends did wish it. There were many reasons why it should be done. If talking could have done it, his talking was good enough. Though his words were in truth cold, and affected, and learned by rote, they did not offend her; but his face offended her; and the feeling was strong within her that if she yielded, it would soon be close to her own. She couldn't do it. She didn't love him, and she wouldn't do it. Priscilla would not grudge her her share out of that meagre meal-tub. Had not Priscilla told her not to marry the man if she did not love him? She found that she was further than ever from loving him. She would not do it. "Say that you will be mine," pleaded Mr. Gibson, coming to her with both his hands outstretched.
"Mr. Gibson, I can't," she said. She was sobbing now, and was half choked by tears.
"And why not, Dorothy?"
"I don't know, but I can't. I don't feel that I want to be married at all."
"But it is honourable."
"It's no use, Mr. Gibson; I can't, and you oughtn't to ask me any more."
"Must this be your very last answer?"
"What's the good of going over it all again and again? I can't do it."
"Never, Miss Stanbury?"
"That is cruel, very cruel. I fear that you doubt my love."
"It isn't cruel, Mr. Gibson. I have a right to have my own feelings, and I can't. If you please, I'll go away now." Then she went, and he was left standing alone in the room. His first feeling was one of anger. Then there came to be mixed with that a good deal of wonder,—and then a certain amount of doubt. He had during the last fortnight discussed the matter at great length with a friend, a gentleman who knew the world, and who took upon himself to say that he specially understood female nature. It was by advice from this friend that he had been instigated to plead his own cause. "Of course she means to accept you," the friend had said. "Why the mischief shouldn't she? But she has some flimsy, old-fashioned country idea that it isn't maidenly to give in at first. You tell her roundly that she must marry you." Mr. Gibson was just reaching that roundness which his friend had recommended when the lady left him and he was alone.
Mr. Gibson was no doubt very much in love with Dorothy Stanbury. So much, we may take for granted. He, at least, believed that he was in love with her. He would have thought it wicked to propose to her had he not been in love with her. But with his love was mingled a certain amount of contempt which had induced him to look upon her as an easy conquest. He had been perhaps a little ashamed of himself for being in love with Dorothy, and had almost believed the Frenches when they had spoken of her as a poor creature, a dependant, one born to be snubbed,—as a young woman almost without an identity of her own. When, therefore, she so pertinaciously refused him, he could not but be angry. And it was natural that he should be surprised. Though he was to have received a fortune with Dorothy, the money was not hers. It was to be hers,—or rather theirs,—only if she would accept him. Mr. Gibson thoroughly understood this point. He knew that Dorothy had nothing of her own. The proposal made to her was as rich as though he had sought her down at Nuncombe Putney, with his preferment, plus the £2,000, in his own pocket. And his other advantages were not hidden from his own eyes. He was a clergyman, well thought of, not bad-looking certainly, considerably under forty,—a man, indeed, who ought to have been, in the eyes of Dorothy, such an Orlando as she would have most desired. He could not therefore but wonder. And then came the doubt. Could it be possible that all those refusals were simply the early pulses of hesitating compliance produced by maidenly reserve? Mr. Gibson's friend had expressed a strong opinion that almost any young woman would accept any young man if he put his "com 'ether" upon her strong enough. For Mr. Gibson's friend was an Irishman. As to Dorothy the friend had not a doubt in the world. Mr. Gibson, as he stood alone in the room after Dorothy's departure, could not share his friend's certainty; but he thought it just possible that the pulsations of maidenly reserve were yet at work. As he was revolving these points in his mind, Miss Stanbury entered the room.
"It's all over now," she said.
"As how, Miss Stanbury?"
"As how! She's given you an answer; hasn't she?"
"Yes, Miss Stanbury, she has given me an answer. But it has occurred to me that young ladies are sometimes,—perhaps a little—"
"She means it, Mr. Gibson; you may take my word for that. She is quite in earnest. She can take the bit between her teeth as well as another, though she does look so mild and gentle. She's a Stanbury all over."
"And must this be the last of it, Miss Stanbury?"
"Upon my word, I don't know what else you can do,—unless you send the Dean and Chapter to talk her over. She's a pig-headed, foolish young woman;—but I can't help that. The truth is, you didn't make enough of her at first, Mr. Gibson. You thought the plum would tumble into your mouth."
This did seem cruel to the poor man. From the first day in which the project had been opened to him by Miss Stanbury, he had yielded a ready acquiescence,—in spite of those ties which he had at Heavitree,—and had done his very best to fall into her views. "I don't think that is at all fair, Miss Stanbury," he said, with some tone of wrath in his voice.
"It's true,—quite true. You always treated her as though she were something beneath you." Mr. Gibson stood speechless, with his mouth open. "So you did. I saw it all. And now she's had spirit enough to resent it. I don't wonder at it; I don't, indeed. It's no good your standing there any longer. The thing is done."
Such intolerable ill-usage Mr. Gibson had never suffered in his life. Had he been untrue, or very nearly untrue, to those dear girls at Heavitree for this? "I never treated her as anything beneath me," he said at last.
"Yes, you did. Do you think that I don't understand? Haven't I eyes in my head, and ears? I'm not deaf yet, nor blind. But there's an end of it. If any young woman ever meant anything, she means it. The truth is, she don't like you."
Was ever a lover despatched in so uncourteous a way! Then, too, he had been summoned thither as a lover, had been specially encouraged to come there as a lover, had been assured of success in a peculiar way, had had the plum actually offered to him! He had done all that this old woman had bidden him,—something, indeed, to the prejudice of his own heart; he had been told that the wife was ready for him; and now, because this foolish young woman didn't know her own mind,—this was Mr. Gibson's view of the matter,—he was reviled and abused, and told that he had behaved badly to the lady. "Miss Stanbury," he said, "I think that you are forgetting yourself."
"Highty, tighty!" said Miss Stanbury. "Forgetting myself! I shan't forget you in a hurry, Mr. Gibson."
"Nor I you, Miss Stanbury. Good morning, Miss Stanbury." Mr. Gibson, as he went from the hall-door into the street, shook the dust off his feet, and resolved that for the future he and Miss Stanbury should be two. There would arise great trouble in Exeter, but, nevertheless, he and Miss Stanbury must be two. He could justify himself in no other purpose after such conduct as he had received.