But the cause of Miss Stanbury's sharpest anger was not to be found in Mr. Gibson's conduct either before Dorothy's refusal of his offer, or on the occasion of his being turned out of the house. A base rumour was spread about the city that Dorothy Stanbury had been offered to Mr. Gibson, that Mr. Gibson had civilly declined the offer,—and that hence had arisen the wrath of the Juno of the Close. Now this was not to be endured by Miss Stanbury. She had felt even in the moment of her original anger against Mr. Gibson that she was bound in honour not to tell the story against him. She had brought him into the little difficulty, and she at least would hold her tongue. She was quite sure that Dorothy would never boast of her triumph. And Martha had been strictly cautioned,—as indeed, also, had Brooke Burgess. The man had behaved like an idiot, Miss Stanbury said; but he had been brought into a little dilemma, and nothing should be said about it from the house in the Close. But when the other rumour reached Miss Stanbury's ears, when Mrs. Crumbie condoled with her on her niece's misfortune, when Mrs. MacHugh asked whether Mr. Gibson had not behaved rather badly to the young lady, then our Juno's celestial mind was filled with a divine anger. But even then she did not declare the truth. She asked a question of Mrs. Crumbie, and was enabled, as she thought, to trace the falsehood to the Frenches. She did not think that Mr. Gibson could on a sudden have become so base a liar. "Mr. Gibson fast and loose with my niece!" she said to Mrs. MacHugh. "You have not got the story quite right, my dear friend. Pray, believe me;—there has been nothing of that sort." "I dare say not," said Mrs. MacHugh, "and I'm sure I don't care. Mr. Gibson has been going to marry one of the French girls for the last ten years, and I think he ought to make up his mind and do it at last."
"I can assure you he is quite welcome as far as Dorothy is concerned," said Miss Stanbury.
Without a doubt the opinion did prevail throughout Exeter that Mr. Gibson, who had been regarded time out of mind as the property of the Miss Frenches, had been angled for by the ladies in the Close, that he had nearly been caught, but that he had slipped the hook out of his mouth, and was now about to subside quietly into the net which had been originally prepared for him. Arabella French had not spoken loudly on the subject, but Camilla had declared in more than one house that she had most direct authority for stating that the gentleman had never dreamed of offering to the young lady. "Why he should not do so if he pleases, I don't know," said Camilla. "Only the fact is that he has not pleased. The rumour of course has reached him, and, as we happen to be very old friends, we have authority for denying it altogether." All this came round to Miss Stanbury, and she was divine in her wrath.
"If they drive me to it," she said to Dorothy, "I'll have the whole truth told by the bellman through the city, or I'll publish it in the County Gazette."
"Pray don't say a word about it, Aunt Stanbury."
"It is those odious girls. He's there now every day."
"Why shouldn't he go there, Aunt Stanbury?"
"If he's fool enough, let him go. I don't care where he goes. But I do care about these lies. They wouldn't dare to say it only they think my mouth is closed. They've no honour themselves, but they screen themselves behind mine."
"I'm sure they won't find themselves mistaken in what they trust to," said Dorothy, with a spirit that her aunt had not expected from her. Miss Stanbury at this time had told nobody that the offer to her niece had been made and repeated and finally rejected;—but she found it very difficult to hold her tongue.
In the meantime Mr. Gibson spent a good deal of his time at Heavitree. It should not perhaps be asserted broadly that he had made up his mind that marriage would be good for him; but he had made up his mind, at least, to this, that it was no longer to be postponed without a balance of disadvantage. The Charybdis in the Close drove him helpless into the whirlpool of the Heavitree Scylla. He had no longer an escape from the perils of the latter shore. He had been so mauled by the opposite waves, that he had neither spirit nor skill left to him to keep in the middle track. He was almost daily at Heavitree, and did not attempt to conceal from himself the approach of his doom.
But still there were two of them. He knew that he must become a prey, but was there any choice left to him as to which siren should have him? He had been quite aware in his more gallant days, before he had been knocked about on that Charybdis rock, that he might sip, and taste, and choose between the sweets. He had come to think lately that the younger young lady was the sweeter. Eight years ago indeed the passages between him and the elder had been tender; but Camilla had then been simply a romping girl, hardly more than a year or two beyond her teens. Now, with her matured charms, Camilla was certainly the more engaging as far as outward form went. Arabella's cheeks were thin and long, and her front teeth had come to show themselves. Her eyes were no doubt still bright, and what she had of hair was soft and dark. But it was very thin in front, and what there was of supplemental mass behind,—the bandbox by which Miss Stanbury was so much aggrieved,—was worn with an indifference to the lines of beauty, which Mr. Gibson himself found to be very depressing. A man with a fair burden on his back is not a grievous sight; but when we see a small human being attached to a bale of goods which he can hardly manage to move, we feel that the poor fellow has been cruelly overweighted. Mr. Gibson certainly had that sensation about Arabella's chignon. And as he regarded it in a nearer and a dearer light,—as a chignon that might possibly become his own, as a burden which in one sense he might himself be called upon to bear, as a domestic utensil which he himself might be called upon to inspect, and perhaps to aid the shifting on and the shifting off, he did begin to think that that side of the Scylla gulf ought to be avoided if possible. And probably this propensity on his part, this feeling that he would like to reconsider the matter dispassionately before he gave himself up for good to his old love, may have been increased by Camilla's apparent withdrawal of her claims. He felt mildly grateful to the Heavitree household in general for accepting him in this time of his affliction, but he could not admit to himself that they had a right to decide upon him in private conclave, and allot him either to the one or to the other nuptials without consultation with himself. To be swallowed up by Scylla he now recognised as his doom; but he thought he ought to be asked on which side of the gulf he would prefer to go down. The way in which Camilla spoke of him as a thing that wasn't hers, but another's; and the way in which Arabella looked at him, as though he were hers and could never be another's, wounded his manly pride. He had always understood that he might have his choice, and he could not understand that the little mishap which had befallen him in the Close was to rob him of that privilege.
He used to drink tea at Heavitree in those days. On one evening on going in he found himself alone with Arabella. "Oh, Mr. Gibson," she said, "we weren't sure whether you'd come. And mamma and Camilla have gone out to Mrs. Camadge's." Mr. Gibson muttered some word to the effect that he hoped he had kept nobody at home; and, as he did so, he remembered that he had distinctly said that he would come on this evening. "I don't know that I should have gone," said Arabella, "because I am not quite,—not quite myself at present. No, not ill; not at all. Don't you know what it is, Mr. Gibson, to be,—to be,—to be,—not quite yourself?" Mr. Gibson said that he had very often felt like that. "And one can't get over it;—can one?" continued Arabella. "There comes a presentiment that something is going to happen, and a kind of belief that something has happened, though you don't know what; and the heart refuses to be light, and the spirit becomes abashed, and the mind, though it creates new thoughts, will not settle itself to its accustomed work. I suppose it's what the novels have called Melancholy."
"I suppose it is," said Mr. Gibson. "But there's generally some cause for it. Debt for instance—"
"It's nothing of that kind with me. It's no debt, at least, that can be written down in the figures of ordinary arithmetic. Sit down, Mr. Gibson, and we will have some tea." Then, as she stretched forward to ring the bell, he thought that he never in his life had seen anything so unshapely as that huge wen at the back of her head. "Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens!" He could not help quoting the words to himself. She was dressed with some attempt at being smart, but her ribbons were soiled, and her lace was tawdry, and the fabric of her dress was old and dowdy. He was quite sure that he would feel no pride in calling her Mrs. Gibson, no pleasure in having her all to himself at his own hearth. "I hope we shall escape the bitterness of Miss Stanbury's tongue if we drink tea tête-à-tête," she said, with her sweetest smile.
"I don't suppose she'll know anything about it."
"She knows about everything, Mr. Gibson. It's astonishing what she knows. She has eyes and ears everywhere. I shouldn't care, if she didn't see and hear so very incorrectly. I'm told now that she declares—; but it doesn't signify."
"Declares what?" asked Mr. Gibson.
"Never mind. But wasn't it odd how all Exeter believed that you were going to be married in that house, and to live there all the rest of your life, and be one of Miss Stanbury's slaves. I never believed it, Mr. Gibson." This she said with a sad smile, that ought to have brought him on his knees, in spite of the chignon.
"One can't help these things," said Mr. Gibson.
"I never could have believed it;—not even if you had not given me an assurance so solemn, and so sweet, that there was nothing in it." The poor man had given the assurance, and could not deny the solemnity and the sweetness. "That was a happy moment for us, Mr. Gibson; because, though we never believed it, when it was dinned into our ears so frequently, when it was made such a triumph in the Close, it was impossible not to fear that there might be something in it." He felt that he ought to make some reply, but he did not know what to say. He was thoroughly ashamed of the lie he had told, but he could not untell it. "Camilla reproached me afterwards for asking you," whispered Arabella, in her softest, tenderest voice. "She said that it was unmaidenly. I hope you did not think it unmaidenly, Mr. Gibson?"
"Oh dear no;—not at all," said he.
Arabella French was painfully alive to the fact that she must do something. She had her fish on the hook; but of what use is a fish on your hook, if you cannot land him? When could she have a better opportunity than this of landing the scaly darling out of the fresh and free waters of his bachelor stream, and sousing him into the pool of domestic life, to be ready there for her own household purposes? "I had known you so long, Mr. Gibson," she said, "and had valued your friendship so—so deeply." As he looked at her he could see nothing but the shapeless excrescence to which his eyes had been so painfully called by Miss Stanbury's satire. It is true that he had formerly been very tender with her, but she had not then carried about with her that distorted monster. He did not believe himself to be at all bound by anything which had passed between them in circumstances so very different. But yet he ought to say something. He ought to have said something; but he said nothing. She was patient, however, very patient; and she went on playing him with her hook. "I am so glad that I did not go out to-night with mamma. It has been such a pleasure to me to have this conversation with you. Camilla, perhaps, would say that I am—unmaidenly."
"I don't think so."
"That is all that I care for, Mr. Gibson. If you acquit me, I do not mind who accuses. I should not like to suppose that you thought me unmaidenly. Anything would be better than that; but I can throw all such considerations to the wind when true—true—friendship is concerned. Don't you think that one ought, Mr. Gibson?"
If it had not been for the thing at the back of her head, he would have done it now. Nothing but that gave him courage to abstain. It grew bigger and bigger, more shapeless, monstrous, absurd, and abominable, as he looked at it. Nothing should force upon him the necessity of assisting to carry such an abortion through the world. "One ought to sacrifice everything to friendship," said Mr. Gibson, "except self-respect."
He meant nothing personal. Something special, in the way of an opinion, was expected of him; and, therefore, he had striven to say something special. But she was in tears in a moment. "Oh, Mr. Gibson," she exclaimed; "oh, Mr. Gibson!"
"What is the matter, Miss French?"
"Have I lost your respect? Is it that that you mean?"
"Certainly not, Miss French."
"Do not call me Miss French, or I shall be sure that you condemn me. Miss French sounds so very cold. You used to call me—Bella." That was quite true; but it was long ago, thought Mr. Gibson,—before the monster had been attached. "Will you not call me Bella now?"
He thought that he had rather not; and yet, how was he to avoid it? On a sudden he became very crafty. Had it not been for the sharpness of his mother wit, he would certainly have been landed at that moment. "As you truly observed just now," he said, "the tongues of people are so malignant. There are little birds that hear everything."
"I don't care what the little birds hear," said Miss French, through her tears. "I am a very unhappy girl;—I know that; and I don't care what anybody says. It is nothing to me what anybody says. I know what I feel." At this moment there was some dash of truth about her. The fish was so very heavy on hand that, do what she would, she could not land him. Her hopes before this had been very low,—hopes that had once been high; but they had been depressed gradually; and, in the slow, dull routine of her daily life, she had learned to bear disappointment by degrees, without sign of outward suffering, without consciousness of acute pain. The task of her life had been weary, and the wished-for goal was ever becoming more and more distant; but there had been still a chance, and she had fallen away into a lethargy of lessening expectation, from which joy, indeed, had been banished, but in which there had been nothing of agony. Then had come upon the whole house at Heavitree the great Stanbury peril, and, arising out of that, had sprung new hopes to Arabella, which made her again capable of all the miseries of a foiled ambition. She could again be patient, if patience might be of any service; but in such a condition an eternity of patience is simply suicidal. She was willing to work hard, but how could she work harder than she had worked. Poor young woman,—perishing beneath an incubus which a false idea of fashion had imposed on her!
"I hope I have said nothing that makes you unhappy," pleaded Mr. Gibson. "I'm sure I haven't meant it."
"But you have," she said. "You make me very unhappy. You condemn me. I see you do. And if I have done wrong it has been all because— Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear!"
"But who says you have done wrong?"
"You won't call me Bella,—because you say the little birds will hear it. If I don't care for the little birds, why should you?"
There is no question more difficult than this for a gentleman to answer. Circumstances do not often admit of its being asked by a lady with that courageous simplicity which had come upon Miss French in this moment of her agonising struggle; but nevertheless it is one which, in a more complicated form, is often put, and to which some reply, more or less complicated, is expected. "If I, a woman, can dare, for your sake, to encounter the public tongue, will you, a man, be afraid?" The true answer, if it could be given, would probably be this; "I am afraid, though a man, because I have much to lose and little to get. You are not afraid, though a woman, because you have much to get and little to lose." But such an answer would be uncivil, and is not often given. Therefore men shuffle and lie, and tell themselves that in love,—love here being taken to mean all antenuptial contests between man and woman,—everything is fair. Mr. Gibson had the above answer in his mind, though he did not frame it into words. He was neither sufficiently brave nor sufficiently cruel to speak to her in such language. There was nothing for him, therefore, but that he must shuffle and lie.
"I only meant," said he, "that I would not for worlds do anything to make you uneasy."
She did not see how she could again revert to the subject of her own Christian name. She had made her little tender, loving request, and it had been refused. Of course she knew that it had been refused as a matter of caution. She was not angry with him because of his caution, as she had expected him to be cautious. The barriers over which she had to climb were no more than she had expected to find in her way;—but they were so very high and so very difficult! Of course she was aware that he would escape if he could. She was not angry with him on that account. Anger could not have helped her. Indeed, she did not price herself highly enough to make her feel that she would be justified in being angry. It was natural enough that he shouldn't want her. She knew herself to be a poor, thin, vapid, tawdry creature, with nothing to recommend her to any man except a sort of second-rate, provincial-town fashion which,—infatuated as she was,—she attributed in a great degree to the thing she carried on her head. She knew nothing. She could do nothing. She possessed nothing. She was not angry with him because he so evidently wished to avoid her. But she thought that if she could only be successful she would be good and loving and obedient,—and that it was fair for her at any rate to try. Each created animal must live and get its food by the gifts which the Creator has given to it, let those gifts be as poor as they may,—let them be even as distasteful as they may to other members of the great created family. The rat, the toad, the slug, the flea, must each live according to its appointed mode of existence. Animals which are parasites by nature can only live by attaching themselves to life that is strong. To Arabella Mr. Gibson would be strong enough, and it seemed to her that if she could fix herself permanently upon his strength, that would be her proper mode of living. She was not angry with him because he resisted the attempt, but she had nothing of conscience to tell her that she should spare him as long as there remained to her a chance of success. And should not her plea of excuse, her justification be admitted? There are tormentors as to which no man argues that they are iniquitous, though they be very troublesome. He either rids himself of them, or suffers as quiescently as he may.
"We used to be such—great—friends," she said, still crying, "and I am afraid you don't like me a bit now."
"Indeed I do;—I have always liked you. But—"
"But what? Do tell me what the but means. I will do anything that you bid me."
Then it occurred to him that if, after such a promise, he were to confide to her his feeling that the chignon which she wore was ugly and unbecoming, she would probably be induced to change her mode of head-dress. It was a foolish idea, because, had he followed it out, he would have seen that compliance on her part in such a matter could only be given with the distinct understanding that a certain reward should be the consequence. When an unmarried gentleman calls upon an unmarried lady to change the fashion of her personal adornments, the unmarried lady has a right to expect that the unmarried gentleman means to make her his wife. But Mr. Gibson had no such meaning; and was led into error by the necessity for sudden action. When she offered to do anything that he might bid her do, he could not take up his hat and go away. She looked up into his face, expecting that he would give her some order;—and he fell into the temptation that was spread for him.
"If I might say a word,—" he began.
"You may say anything," she exclaimed.
"If I were you I don't think—"
"You don't think what, Mr. Gibson?"
He found it to be a matter very difficult of approach. "Do you know, I don't think the fashion that has come up about wearing your hair quite suits you,—not so well as the way you used to do it." She became on a sudden very red in the face, and he thought that she was angry. Vexed she was, but still, accompanying her vexation, there was a remembrance that she was achieving victory even by her own humiliation. She loved her chignon; but she was ready to abandon even that for him. Nevertheless she could not speak for a moment or two, and he was forced to continue his criticism. "I have no doubt those things are very becoming and all that, and I dare say they are comfortable."
"Oh, very," she said.
"But there was a simplicity that I liked about the other."
Could it be then that for the last five years he had stood aloof from her because she had arrayed herself in fashionable attire? She was still very red in the face, still suffering from wounded vanity, still conscious of that soreness which affects us all when we are made to understand that we are considered to have failed there, where we have most thought that we excelled. But her womanly art enabled her quickly to conceal the pain. "I have made a promise," she said, "and you will find that I will keep it."
"What promise?" asked Mr. Gibson.
"I said that I would do as you bade me, and so I will. I would have done it sooner if I had known that you wished it. I would never have worn it at all if I had thought that you disliked it."
"I think that a little of them is very nice," said Mr. Gibson. Mr. Gibson was certainly an awkward man. But there are men so awkward that it seems to be their especial province to say always the very worst thing at the very worst moment.
She became redder than ever as she was thus told of the hugeness of her favourite ornament. She was almost angry now. But she restrained herself, thinking perhaps of how she might teach him taste in days to come as he was teaching her now. "I will change it to-morrow," she said with a smile. "You come and see to-morrow."
Upon this he got up and took his hat and made his escape, assuring her that he would come and see her on the morrow. She let him go now without any attempt at further tenderness. Certainly she had gained much during the interview. He had as good as told her in what had been her offence, and of course, when she had remedied that offence, he could hardly refuse to return to her. She got up as soon as she was alone, and looked at her head in the glass, and told herself that the pity would be great. It was not that the chignon was in itself a thing of beauty, but that it imparted so unmistakable an air of fashion! It divested her of that dowdiness which she feared above all things, and enabled her to hold her own among other young women, without feeling that she was absolutely destitute of attraction. There had been a certain homage paid to it, which she had recognised and enjoyed. But it was her ambition to hold her own, not among young women, but among clergymen's wives, and she would certainly obey his orders. She could not make the attempt now because of the complications; but she certainly would make it before she laid her head on the pillow,—and would explain to Camilla that it was a little joke between herself and Mr. Gibson.