Dorothy was received at home with so much affection and such expressions of esteem as to afford her much consolation in her misery. Both her mother and her sister approved of her conduct. Mrs. Stanbury's approval was indeed accompanied by many expressions of regret as to the good things lost. She was fully alive to the fact that life in the Close at Exeter was better for her daughter than life in their little cottage at Nuncombe Putney. The outward appearance which Dorothy bore on her return home was proof of this. Her clothes, the set of her hair, her very gestures and motions had framed themselves on town ideas. The faded, wildered, washed-out look, the uncertain, purposeless bearing which had come from her secluded life and subjection to her sister had vanished from her. She had lived among people, and had learned something of their gait and carriage. Money we know will do almost everything, and no doubt money had had much to do with this. It is very pretty to talk of the alluring simplicity of a clean calico gown; but poverty will shew itself to be meagre, dowdy, and draggled in a woman's dress, let the woman be ever so simple, ever so neat, ever so independent, and ever so high-hearted. Mrs. Stanbury was quite alive to all that her younger daughter was losing. Had she not received two offers of marriage while she was at Exeter? There was no possibility that offers of marriage should be made in the cottage at Nuncombe Putney. A man within the walls of the cottage would have been considered as much out of place as a wild bull. It had been matter of deep regret to Mrs. Stanbury that her daughter should not have found herself able to marry Mr. Gibson. She knew that there was no matter for reproach in this, but it was a misfortune,—a great misfortune. And in the mother's breast there had been a sad, unrepressed feeling of regret that young people should so often lose their chances in the world through over-fancifulness, and ignorance as to their own good. Now when she heard the story of Brooke Burgess, she could not but think that had Dorothy remained at Exeter, enduring patiently such hard words as her aunt might speak, the love affair might have been brought at some future time to a happy conclusion. She did not say all this; but there came on her a silent melancholy, made expressive by constant little shakings of the head and a continued reproachful sadness of demeanour, which was quite as intelligible to Priscilla as would have been any spoken words. But Priscilla's approval of her sister's conduct was clear, outspoken, and satisfactory. She had been quite sure that her sister had been right about Mr. Gibson; and was equally sure that she was now right about Brooke Burgess. Priscilla had in her mind an idea that if B. B., as they called him, was half as good as her sister represented him to be,—for indeed Dorothy endowed him with every virtue consistent with humanity,—he would not be deterred from his pursuit either by Dolly's letter or by Aunt Stanbury's commands. But of this she thought it wise to say nothing. She paid Dolly the warm and hitherto unaccustomed compliment of equality, assuming to regard her sister's judgment and persistent independence to be equally strong with her own; and, as she knew well, she could not have gone further than this. "I never shall agree with you about Aunt Stanbury," she said. "To me she seems to be so imperious, so exacting, and also so unjust, as to be unbearable."
"But she is affectionate," said Dolly.
"So is the dog that bites you, and, for aught I know, the horse that kicks you. But it is ill living with biting dogs and kicking horses. But all that matters little as you are still your own mistress. How strange these nine months have been, with you in Exeter, while we have been at the Clock House. And here we are, together again in the old way, just as though nothing had happened." But Dorothy knew well that a great deal had happened, and that her life could never be as it had been heretofore. The very tone in which her sister spoke to her was proof of this. She had an infinitely greater possession in herself than had belonged to her before her residence at Exeter; but that possession was so heavily mortgaged and so burthened as to make her believe that the change was to be regretted.
At the end of the first week there came a letter from Aunt Stanbury to Dorothy. It began by saying that Dolly had left behind her certain small properties which had now been made up in a parcel and sent by the railway, carriage paid. "But they weren't mine at all," said Dolly, alluding to certain books in which she had taken delight. "She means to give them to you," said Priscilla, "and I think you must take them." "And the shawl is no more mine than it is yours, though I wore it two or three times in the winter." Priscilla was of opinion that the shawl must be taken also. Then the letter spoke of the writer's health, and at last fell into such a strain of confidential gossip that Mrs. Stanbury, when she read it, could not understand that there had been a quarrel. "Martha says that she saw Camilla French in the street to-day, such a guy in her new finery as never was seen before except on May-day." Then in the postscript Dorothy was enjoined to answer this letter quickly. "None of your short scraps, my dear," said Aunt Stanbury.
"She must mean you to go back to her," said Mrs. Stanbury.
"No doubt she does," said Priscilla; "but Dolly need not go because my aunt means it. We are not her creatures."
But Dorothy answered her aunt's letter in the spirit in which it had been written. She asked after her aunt's health, thanked her aunt for the gift of the books,—in each of which her name had been clearly written,—protested about the shawl, sent her love to Martha and her kind regards to Jane, and expressed a hope that C. F. enjoyed her new clothes. She described the cottage, and was funny about the cabbage stumps in the garden, and at last succeeded in concocting a long epistle. "I suppose there will be a regular correspondence," said Priscilla.
Two days afterwards, however, the correspondence took altogether
another form. The cottage in which they now lived was supposed to be
beyond the beat of the wooden-legged postman, and therefore it was
necessary that they should call at the post-office for their letters.
On the morning in question Priscilla obtained a thick letter from
Exeter for her mother, and knew that it had come from her aunt. Her
aunt could hardly have found it necessary to correspond with
Dorothy's mother so soon after that letter to Dorothy had been
written had there not arisen some very peculiar cause. Priscilla,
after much meditation, thought it better that the letter should be
opened in Dorothy's absence, and in Dorothy's absence the following
letter was read both by Priscilla and her
The Close, March 19, 186—.
Dear Sister Stanbury,
After much consideration, I think it best to send under cover to you the enclosed letter from Mr. Brooke Burgess, intended for your daughter Dorothy. You will see that I have opened it and read it,—as I was clearly entitled to do, the letter having been addressed to my niece while she was supposed to be under my care. I do not like to destroy the letter, though, perhaps, that would be best; but I would advise you to do so, if it be possible, without shewing it to Dorothy. I have told Mr. Brooke Burgess what I have done.
I have also told him that I cannot sanction a marriage between him and your daughter. There are many reasons of old date,—not to speak of present reasons also,—which would make such a marriage highly inexpedient. Mr. Brooke Burgess is, of course, his own master, but your daughter understands completely how the matter stands.
"What a wicked old woman!" said Priscilla. Then there arose a question whether they should read Brooke's letter, or whether they should give it unread to Dorothy. Priscilla denounced her aunt in the strongest language she could use for having broken the seal. "'Clearly entitled,'—because Dorothy had been living with her!" exclaimed Priscilla. "She can have no proper conception of honour or of honesty. She had no more right to open Dorothy's letter than she had to take her money." Mrs. Stanbury was very anxious to read Brooke's letter, alleging that they would then be able to judge whether it should be handed over to Dorothy. But Priscilla's sense of right would not admit of this. Dorothy must receive the letter from her lover with no further stain from unauthorised eyes than that to which it had been already subjected. She was called in, therefore, from the kitchen, and the whole packet was given to her. "Your aunt has read the enclosure, Dolly; but we have not opened it."
Dorothy took the packet without a word and sat herself down. She first read her aunt's letter very slowly. "I understand perfectly," she said, folding it up, almost listlessly, while Brooke's letter lay still unopened on her lap. Then she took it up, and held it awhile in both hands, while her mother and Priscilla watched her. "Priscilla," she said, "do you read it first."
Priscilla was immediately at her side, kissing her. "No, my darling; no," she said; "it is for you to read it." Then Dorothy took the precious contents from the envelope, and opened the folds of the paper. When she had read a dozen words, her eyes were so suffused with tears, that she could hardly make herself mistress of the contents of the letter; but she knew that it contained renewed assurances of her lover's love, and assurance on his part that he would take no refusal from her based on any other ground than that of her own indifference to him. He had written to Miss Stanbury to the same effect; but he had not thought it necessary to explain this to Dorothy; nor did Miss Stanbury in her letter tell them that she had received any communication from him. "Shall I read it now?" said Priscilla, as soon as Dorothy again allowed the letter to fall into her lap.
Both Priscilla and Mrs. Stanbury read it, and for awhile they sat with the two letters among them without much speech about them. Mrs. Stanbury was endeavouring to make herself believe that her sister-in-law's opposition might be overcome, and that then Dorothy might be married. Priscilla was inquiring of herself whether it would be well that Dorothy should defy her aunt,—so much, at any rate, would be well,—and marry the man, even to his deprivation of the old woman's fortune. Priscilla had her doubts about this, being very strong in her ideas of self-denial. That her sister should put up with the bitterest disappointment rather than injure the man she loved was right;—but then it would also be so extremely right to defy Aunt Stanbury to her teeth! But Dorothy, in whose character was mixed with her mother's softness much of the old Stanbury strength, had no doubt in her mind. It was very sweet to be so loved. What gratitude did she not owe to a man who was so true to her! What was she that she should stand in his way? To lay herself down that she might be crushed in his path was no more than she owed to him. Mrs. Stanbury was the first to speak.
"I suppose he is a very good young man," she said.
"I am sure he is;—a noble, true-hearted man," said Priscilla.
"And why shouldn't he marry whom he pleases, as long as she is respectable?" said Mrs. Stanbury.
"In some people's eyes poverty is more disreputable than vice," said Priscilla.
"Your aunt has been so fond of Dorothy," pleaded Mrs. Stanbury.
"Just as she is of her servants," said Priscilla.
But Dorothy said nothing. Her heart was too full to enable her to defend her aunt; nor at the present moment was she strong enough to make her mother understand that no hope was to be entertained. In the course of the day she walked out with her sister on the road towards Ridleigh, and there, standing among the rocks and ferns, looking down upon the river, with the buzz of the little mill within her ears, she explained the feelings of her heart and her many thoughts with a flow of words stronger, as Priscilla thought, than she had ever used before.
"It is not what he would suffer now, Pris, or what he would feel, but what he would feel ten, twenty years hence, when he would know that his children would have been all provided for, had he not lost his fortune by marrying me."
"He must be the only judge whether he prefers you to the old woman's money," said Priscilla.
"No, dear; not the only judge. And it isn't that, Pris,—not which he likes best now, but which it is best for him that he should have. What could I do for him?"
"You can love him."
"Yes;—I can do that." And Dorothy paused a moment, to think how exceedingly well she could do that one thing. "But what is that? As you said the other day, a dog can do that. I am not clever. I can't play, or talk French, or do things that men like their wives to do. And I have lived here all my life; and what am I, that for me he should lose a great fortune?"
"That is his look out."
"No, dearest;—it is mine, and I will look out. I shall be able, at any rate, to remember always that I have loved him, and have not injured him. He may be angry with me now,"—and there was a feeling of pride at her heart, as she thought that he would be angry with her, because she did not go to him,—"but he will know at last that I have been as good to him as I knew how to be."
Then Priscilla wound her arms round Dorothy, and kissed her. "My sister," she said; "my own sister!" They walked on further, discussing the matter in all its bearings, talking of the act of self-denial which Dorothy was called on to perform, as though it were some abstract thing, the performance of which was, or perhaps was not, imperatively demanded by the laws which should govern humanity; but with no idea on the mind of either of them that there was any longer a doubt as to this special matter in hand. They were away from home over three hours; and, when they returned, Dorothy at once wrote her two letters. They were very simple, and very short. She told Brooke, whom she now addressed as "Dear Mr. Burgess," that it could not be as he would have it; and she told her aunt,—with some terse independence of expression, which Miss Stanbury quite understood,—that she had considered the matter, and had thought it right to refuse Mr. Burgess's offer.
"Don't you think she is very much changed?" said Mrs. Stanbury to her eldest daughter.
"Not changed in the least, mother; but the sun has opened the bud, and now we see the fruit."