Then came the blow. Mr. Gibson had not been at the house for some days, but the notes had been going and coming. At last Mr. Gibson came himself; but, as it happened, when he came, Camilla was out shopping. In these days she often did go out shopping between eleven and one, carrying her sister with her. It must have been but a poor pleasure for Arabella, this witnessing the purchases made, seeing the pleasant draperies, and handling the real linens and admiring the fine cambrics spread out before them on the shop counters by obsequious attendants. And the questions asked of her by her sister, whether this was good enough for so august an occasion, or that sufficiently handsome, must have been harassing. She could not have failed to remember that it ought all to have been done for her,—that had she not been treated with monstrous injustice, with most unsisterly cruelty, all these good things would have been spread on her behoof. But she went on and endured it, and worked diligently with her needle, and folded and unfolded as she was desired, and became as it were quite a younger sister in the house,—creeping out by herself now and again into the purlieus of the city, to find such consolation as she might receive from her solitary thoughts.
But Arabella and Camilla were both away when Mr. Gibson called to tell Mrs. French of his altered plans. And as he asked, not for his lady-love, but for Mrs. French herself, it is probable that he watched his opportunity and that he knew to what cares his Camilla was then devoting herself. "Perhaps it is quite as well that I should find you alone," he said, after sundry preludes, to his future mother-in-law, "because you can make Camilla understand this better than I can. I must put off the day for about three weeks."
"Three weeks, Mr. Gibson?"
"Or a month. Perhaps we had better say the 29th of April." Mr. Gibson had by this time thrown off every fear that he might have entertained of the mother, and could speak to her of such an unwarrantable change of plans with tolerable equanimity.
"But I don't know that that will suit Camilla at all."
"She can name any other day she pleases, of course;—that is, in May."
"But why is this to be?"
"There are things about money, Mrs. French, which I cannot arrange sooner. And I find that unfortunately I must go up to London." Though many other questions were asked, nothing further was got out of Mr. Gibson on that occasion; and he left the house with a perfect understanding on his own part,—and on that of Mrs. French,—that the marriage was postponed till some day still to be fixed, but which could not and should not be before the 29th of April. Mrs. French asked him why he did not come up and see Camilla. He replied,—false man that he was,—that he had hoped to have seen her this morning, and that he would come again before the week was over.
Then it was that Camilla spoke her mind out plainly. "I shall go to his house at once," she said, "and find out all about it. I don't understand it. I don't understand it at all; and I won't put up with it. He shall know who he has to deal with, if he plays tricks upon me. Mamma, I wonder you let him out of the house, till you had made him come back to his old day."
"What could I do, my dear?"
"What could you do? Shake him out of it,—as I would have done. But he didn't dare to tell me,—because he is a coward."
Camilla in all this showed her spirit; but she allowed her anger to hurry her away into an indiscretion. Arabella was present, and Camilla should have repressed her rage.
"I don't think he's at all a coward," said Arabella.
"That's my business. I suppose I'm entitled to know what he is better than you."
"All the same I don't think Mr. Gibson is at all a coward," said Arabella, again pleading the cause of the man who had misused her.
"Now, Arabella, I won't take any interference from you; mind that. I say it was cowardly, and he should have come to me. It's my concern, and I shall go to him. I'm not going to be stopped by any shilly-shally nonsense, when my future respectability, perhaps, is at stake. All Exeter knows that the marriage is to take place on the 31st of this month."
On the next day Camilla absolutely did go to Mr. Gibson's house at an early hour, at nine, when, as she thought, he would surely be at breakfast. But he had flown. He had left Exeter that morning by an early train, and his servant thought that he had gone to London. On the next morning Camilla got a note from him, written in London. It affected to be very cheery and affectionate, beginning "Dearest Cammy," and alluding to the postponement of his wedding as though it were a thing so fixed as to require no further question. Camilla answered this letter, still in much wrath, complaining, protesting, expostulating;—throwing in his teeth the fact that the day had been fixed by him, and not by her. And she added a postscript in the following momentous words:—"If you have any respect for the name of your future wife, you will fall back upon your first arrangement." To this she got simply a line of an answer, declaring that this falling back was impossible, and then nothing was heard of him for ten days. He had gone from Tuesday to Saturday week;—and the first that Camilla saw of him was his presence in the reading desk when he chaunted the cathedral service as priest-vicar on the Sunday.
At this time Arabella was very ill, and was confined to her bed. Mr. Martin declared that her system had become low from over anxiety,—that she was nervous, weak, and liable to hysterics,—that her feelings were in fact too many for her,—and that her efforts to overcome them, and to face the realities of the world, had exhausted her. This was, of course, not said openly, at the town-cross of Exeter; but such was the opinion which Mr. Martin gave in confidence to the mother. "Fiddle-de-dee!" said Camilla, when she was told of feelings, susceptibilities, and hysterics. At the present moment she had a claim to the undivided interest of the family, and she believed that her sister's illness was feigned in order to defraud her of her rights. "My dear, she is ill," said Mrs. French. "Then let her have a dose of salts," said the stern Camilla. This was on the Sunday afternoon. Camilla had endeavoured to see Mr. Gibson as he came out of the cathedral, but had failed. Mr. Gibson had been detained within the building,—no doubt by duties connected with the choral services. On that evening he got a note from Camilla, and quite early on the Monday morning he came up to Heavitree.
"You will find her in the drawing-room," said Mrs. French, as she opened the hall-door for him. There was a smile on her face as she spoke, but it was a forced smile. Mr. Gibson did not smile at all.
"Is it all right with her?" he asked.
"Well;—you had better go to her. You see, Mr. Gibson, young ladies, when they are going to be married, think that they ought to have their own way a little, just for the last time, you know." He took no notice of the joke, but went with slow steps up to the drawing-room. It would be inquiring too curiously to ask whether Camilla, when she embraced him, discerned that he had fortified his courage that morning with a glass of curacoa.
"What does all this mean, Thomas?" was the first question that Camilla asked when the embrace was over.
"All what mean, dear?"
"This untoward delay. Thomas, you have almost broken my heart. You have been away, and I have not heard from you."
"I wrote twice, Camilla."
"And what sort of letters? If there is anything the matter, Thomas, you had better tell me at once." She paused, but Thomas held his tongue. "I don't suppose you want to kill me."
"God forbid," said Thomas.
"But you will. What must everybody think of me in the city when they find that it is put off? Poor mamma has been dreadful;—quite dreadful! And here is Arabella now laid up on a bed of sickness." This, too, was indiscreet. Camilla should have said nothing about her sister's sickness.
"I have been so sorry to hear about dear Bella," said Mr. Gibson.
"I don't suppose she's very bad," said Camilla, "but of course we all feel it. Of course we're upset. As for me, I bear up; because I've that spirit that I won't give way if it's ever so; but, upon my word, it tries me hard. What is the meaning of it, Thomas?"
But Thomas had nothing to say beyond what he had said before to Mrs. French. He was very particular, he said, about money; and certain money matters made it incumbent on him not to marry before the 29th of April. When Camilla suggested to him that as she was to be his wife, she ought to know all about his money matters, he told her that she should,—some day. When they were married, he would tell her all. Camilla talked a great deal, and said some things that were very severe. Mr. Gibson did not enjoy his morning, but he endured the upbraidings of his fair one with more firmness than might perhaps have been expected from him. He left all the talking to Camilla; but when he got up to leave her, the 29th of April had been fixed, with some sort of assent from her, as the day on which she was really to become Mrs. Gibson.
When he left the room, he again met Mrs. French on the landing-place. She hesitated a moment, waiting to see whether the door would be shut; but the door could not be shut, as Camilla was standing in the entrance. "Mr. Gibson," said Mrs. French, in a voice that was scarcely a whisper, "would you mind stepping in and seeing poor Bella for a moment?"
"Why;—she is in bed," said Camilla.
"Yes;—she is in bed; but she thinks it would be a comfort to her. She has seen nobody these four days except Mr. Martin, and she thinks it would comfort her to have a word or two with Mr. Gibson." Now Mr. Gibson was not only going to be Bella's brother-in-law, but he was also a clergyman. Camilla in her heart believed that the half-clerical aspect which her mother had given to the request was false and hypocritical. There were special reasons why Bella should not have wished to see Mr. Gibson in her bedroom, at any rate till Mr. Gibson had become her brother-in-law. The expression of such a wish at the present moment was almost indecent.
"You'll be there with them?" said Camilla. Mr. Gibson blushed up to his ears as he heard the suggestion. "Of course you'll be there with them, mamma."
"No, my dear, I think not. I fancy she wishes him to read to her,—or something of that sort." Then Mr. Gibson, without speaking a word, but still blushing up to his ears, was taken to Arabella's room; and Camilla, flouncing into the drawing-room, banged the door behind her. She had hitherto fought her battle with considerable skill and with great courage;—but her very success had made her imprudent. She had become so imperious in the great position which she had reached, that she could not control her temper or wait till her power was confirmed. The banging of that door was heard through the whole house, and every one knew why it was banged. She threw herself on to a sofa, and then, instantly rising again, paced the room with quick step. Could it be possible that there was treachery? Was it on the cards that that weak, poor creature, Bella, was intriguing once again to defraud her of her husband? There were different things that she now remembered. Arabella, in that moment of bliss in which she had conceived herself to be engaged to Mr. Gibson, had discarded her chignon. Then she had resumed it,—in all its monstrous proportions. Since that it had been lessened by degrees, and brought down, through various interesting but abnormal shapes, to a size which would hardly have drawn forth any anathema from Miss Stanbury. And now, on this very morning, Arabella had put on a clean nightcap, with muslin frills. It is perhaps not unnatural that a sick lady, preparing to receive a clergyman in her bedroom, should put on a clean nightcap,—but to suspicious eyes small causes suffice to create alarm. And if there were any such hideous wickedness in the wind, had Arabella any colleague in her villainy? Could it be that the mother was plotting against her daughter's happiness and respectability? Camilla was well aware that her mamma would at first have preferred to give Arabella to Mr. Gibson, had the choice in the matter been left to her. But now, when the thing had been settled before all the world, would not such treatment on a mother's part be equal to infanticide? And then as to Mr. Gibson himself! Camilla was not prone to think little of her own charms, but she had been unable not to perceive that her lover had become negligent in his personal attentions to her. An accepted lover, who deserves to have been accepted, should devote every hour at his command to his mistress. But Mr. Gibson had of late been so chary of his presence at Heavitree, that Camilla could not but have known that he took no delight in coming thither. She had acknowledged this to herself; but she had consoled herself with the reflection that marriage would make this all right. Mr. Gibson was not the man to stray from his wife, and she could trust herself to obtain a sufficient hold upon her husband hereafter, partly by the strength of her tongue, partly by the ascendency of her spirit, and partly, also, by the comforts which she would provide for him. She had not doubted but that it would be all well when they should be married;—but how if, even now, there should be no marriage for her? Camilla French had never heard of Creusa and of Jason, but as she paced her mother's drawing-room that morning she was a Medea in spirit. If any plot of that kind should be in the wind, she would do such things that all Devonshire should hear of her wrongs and of her revenge!
In the meantime Mr. Gibson was sitting by Arabella's bedside, while Mrs. French was trying to make herself busy in her own chamber, next door. There had been a reading of some chapter of the Bible,—or of some portion of a chapter. And Mr. Gibson, as he read, and Arabella, as she listened, had endeavoured to take to their hearts and to make use of the word which they heard. The poor young woman, when she begged her mother to send to her the man who was so dear to her, did so with some half-formed condition that it would be good for her to hear a clergyman read to her. But now the chapter had been read, and the book was back in Mr. Gibson's pocket, and he was sitting with his hand on the bed. "She is so very arrogant," said Bella,—"and so domineering." To this Mr. Gibson made no reply. "I'm sure I have endeavoured to bear it well, though you must have known what I have suffered, Thomas. Nobody can understand it so well as you do."
"I wish I had never been born," said Mr. Gibson, tragically.
"Don't say that, Thomas,—because it's wicked."
"But I do. See all the harm I have done;—and yet I did not mean it."
"You must try and do the best you can now. I am not saying what that should be. I am not dictating to you. You are a man, and, of course, you must judge for yourself. But I will say this. You shouldn't do anything just because it is the easiest. I don't suppose I should live after it. I don't indeed. But that should not signify to you."
"I don't suppose that any man was ever before in such a terrible position since the world began."
"It is difficult;—I am sure of that, Thomas."
"And I have meant to be so true. I fancy sometimes that some mysterious agency interferes with the affairs of a man, and drives him on,—and on,—and on,—almost,—till he doesn't know where it drives him." As he said this in a voice that was quite sepulchral in its tone, he felt some consolation in the conviction that this mysterious agency could not affect a man without embuing him with a certain amount of grandeur,—very uncomfortable, indeed, in its nature, but still having considerable value as a counterpoise. Pride must bear pain;—but pain is recompensed by pride.
"She is so strong, Thomas, that she can put up with anything," said Arabella, in a whisper.
"Strong;—yes," said he, with a shudder;—"she is strong enough."
"And as for love—"
"Don't talk about it," said he, getting up from his chair. "Don't talk about it. You will drive me frantic."
"You know what my feelings are, Thomas; you have always known them. There has been no change since I was the young thing you first knew me." As she spoke, she just touched his hand with hers; but he did not seem to notice this, sitting with his elbow on the arm of his chair and his forehead on his hand. In reply to what she said to him, he merely shook his head,—not intending to imply thereby any doubt of the truth of her assertion. "You have now to make up your mind and to be bold, Thomas," continued Arabella. "She says that you are a coward; but I know that you are no coward. I told her so, and she said that I was interfering. Oh,—that she should be able to tell me that I interfere when I defend you!"
"I must go," said Mr. Gibson, jumping up from his chair. "I must go. Bella, I cannot stand this any longer. It is too much for me. I will pray that I may decide aright. God bless you!" Then he kissed her brow as she lay in bed, and hurried out of the room.
He had hoped to go from the house without further converse with any of its inmates; for his mind was disturbed, and he longed to be at rest. But he was not allowed to escape so easily. Camilla met him at the dining-room door, and accosted him with a smile. There had been time for much meditation during the last half hour, and Camilla had meditated. "How do you find her, Thomas?" she asked.
"She seems weak, but I believe she is better. I have been reading to her."
"Come in, Thomas;—will you not? It is bad for us to stand talking on the stairs. Dear Thomas, don't let us be so cold to each other." He had no alternative but to put his arm round her waist and kiss her, thinking, as he did so, of the mysterious agency which afflicted him. "Tell me that you love me, Thomas," she said.
"Of course I love you." The question is not a pleasant one when put by a lady to a gentleman whose affections towards her are not strong, and it requires a very good actor to produce an efficient answer.
"I hope you do, Thomas. It would be sad, indeed, if you did not. You are not weary of your Camilla,—are you?"
For a moment there came upon him an idea that he would confess that he was weary of her, but he found at once that such an effort was beyond his powers. "How can you ask such a question?" he said.
"Because you do not—come to me." Camilla, as she spoke, laid her head upon his shoulder, and wept. "And now you have been five minutes with me and nearly an hour with Bella."
"She wanted me to read to her," said Mr. Gibson;—and he hated himself thoroughly as he said it.
"And now you want to get away as fast as you can," continued Camilla.
"Because of the morning service," said Mr. Gibson. This was quite true, and yet he hated himself again for saying it. As Camilla knew the truth of the last plea, she was obliged to let him go; but she made him swear before he went that he loved her dearly. "I think it's all right," she said to herself as he went down the stairs. "I don't think he'd dare make it wrong. If he does;—o-oh!"
Mr. Gibson, as he walked into Exeter, endeavoured to justify his own conduct to himself. There was no moment, he declared to himself, in which he had not endeavoured to do right. Seeing the manner in which he had been placed among these two young women, both of whom had fallen in love with him, how could he have saved himself from vacillation? And by what untoward chance had it come to pass that he had now learned to dislike so vigorously, almost to hate, the one with whom he had been for a moment sufficiently infatuated to think that he loved?
But with all his arguments he did not succeed in justifying to himself his own conduct, and he hated himself.