During these days there were terrible doings at Exeter. Camilla had sworn that if Mr. Gibson did not come to, there should be a tragedy, and it appeared that she was inclined to keep her word. Immediately after the receipt of her letter from Mr. Gibson she had had an interview with that gentleman in his lodgings, and had asked him his intentions. He had taken measures to fortify himself against such an attack; but, whatever those measures were, Camilla had broken through them. She had stood before him as he sat in his arm-chair, and he had been dumb in her presence. It had perhaps been well for him that the eloquence of her indignation had been so great that she had hardly been able to pause a moment for a reply. "Will you take your letter back again?" she had said. "I should be wrong to do that," he had lisped out in reply, "because it is true. As a Christian minister I could not stand with you at the altar with a lie in my mouth." In no other way did he attempt to excuse himself,—but that, twice repeated, filled up all the pause which she made for him.
There never had been such a case before,—so impudent, so cruel, so gross, so uncalled for, so unmanly, so unnecessary, so unjustifiable, so damnable,—so sure of eternal condemnation! All this she said to him with loud voice, and clenched fist, and starting eyes,—regardless utterly of any listeners on the stairs, or of outside passers in the street. In very truth she was moved to a sublimity of indignation. Her low nature became nearly poetic under the wrong inflicted upon her. She was almost tempted to tear him with her hands, and inflict upon him at the moment some terrible vengeance which should be told of for ever in the annals of Exeter. A man so mean as he, so weak, so cowardly, one so little of a hero;—that he should dare to do it, and dare to sit there before her, and to say that he would do it! "Your gown shall be torn off your back, sir, and the very boys of Exeter shall drag you through the gutters!" To this threat he said nothing, but sat mute, hiding his face in his hands. "And now tell me this, sir;—is there anything between you and Bella?" But there was no voice in reply. "Answer my question, sir. I have a right to ask it." Still he said not a word. "Listen to me. Sooner than that you and she should be man and wife, I would stab her! Yes, I would;—you poor, paltry, lying, cowardly creature!" She remained with him for more than half an hour, and then banged out of the room flashing back a look of scorn at him as she went. Martha, before that day was over, had learned the whole story from Mr. Gibson's cook, and had told her mistress.
"I did not think he had so much spirit in him," was Miss Stanbury's answer. Throughout Exeter the great wonder arising from the crisis was the amount of spirit which had been displayed by Mr. Gibson.
When he was left alone he shook himself, and began to think that if
there were danger that such interviews might occur frequently he had
better leave Exeter for good. As he put his hand over his forehead,
he declared to himself that a very little more of that kind of thing
would kill him. When a couple of hours had passed over his head he
shook himself again, and sat down and wrote a letter to his intended
I do not mean to complain [he said], God knows I have no right; but I cannot stand a repetition of what has occurred just now. If your younger daughter comes to see me again I must refuse to see her, and shall leave the town. I am ready to make what reparation may be possible for the mistake into which I have fallen.
Mrs. French was no doubt much afraid of her younger daughter, but she was less afraid of her than were other people. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt; and who can be so familiar with a child as its parent? She did not in her heart believe that Camilla would murder anybody, and she fully realised the conviction that, even after all that was come and gone, it would be better that one of her daughters should have a husband than that neither should be so blessed. If only Camilla could be got out of Exeter for a few months,—how good a thing it would be for them all! She had a brother in Gloucester,—if only he could be got to take Camilla for a few months! And then, too, she knew that if the true rights of her two daughters were strictly and impartially examined, Arabella's claim was much stronger than any that Camilla could put forward to the hand of Mr. Gibson.
"You must not go there again, Camilla," the mother said.
"I shall go whenever I please," replied the fury.
"Now, Camilla, we may as well understand each other. I will not have it done. If I am provoked, I will send to your uncle at Gloucester." Now the uncle at Gloucester was a timber merchant, a man with protuberant eyes and a great square chin,—known to be a very stern man indeed, and not at all afraid of young women.
"What do I care for my uncle? My uncle would take my part."
"No, he would not. The truth is, Camilla, you interfered with Bella first."
"Mamma, how dare you say so!"
"You did, my dear. And these are the consequences."
"And you mean to say that she is to be Mrs. Gibson?"
"I say nothing about that. But I do not see why they shouldn't be married if their hearts are inclined to each other."
"I will die first!"
"Your dying has nothing to do with it, Camilla."
"And I will kill her!"
"If you speak to me again in that way I will write to your uncle at Gloucester. I have done the best I could for you both, and I will not bear such treatment."
"And how am I treated?"
"You should not have interfered with your sister."
"You are all in a conspiracy together," shouted Camilla, "you are! There never was anybody so badly treated,—never,—never,—never! What will everybody say of me?"
"They will pity you, if you will be quiet."
"I don't want to be pitied;—I won't be pitied. I wish I could die,—and I will die! Anybody else would, at any rate, have had their mother and sister with them!" Then she burst into a flood of real, true, womanly tears.
After this there was a lull at Heavitree for a few days. Camilla did not speak to her sister, but she condescended to hold some intercourse with her mother, and to take her meals at the family table. She did not go out of the house, but she employed herself in her own room, doing no one knew what, with all that new clothing and household gear which was to have been transferred in her train to Mr. Gibson's house. Mrs. French was somewhat uneasy about the new clothing and household gear, feeling that, in the event of Bella's marriage, at least a considerable portion of it must be transferred to the new bride. But it was impossible at the present moment to open such a subject to Camilla;—it would have been as a proposition to a lioness respecting the taking away of her whelps. Nevertheless, the day must soon come in which something must be said about the clothing and household gear. All the property that had been sent into the house at Camilla's orders could not be allowed to remain as Camilla's perquisites, now that Camilla was not to be married. "Do you know what she is doing, my dear?" said Mrs. French to her elder daughter.
"Perhaps she is picking out the marks," said Bella.
"I don't think she would do that as yet," said Mrs. French.
"She might just as well leave it alone," said Bella, feeling that one of the two letters would do for her. But neither of them dared to speak to her of her occupation in these first days of her despair.
Mr. Gibson in the meantime remained at home, or only left his house to go to the Cathedral or to visit the narrow confines of his little parish. When he was out he felt that everybody looked at him, and it seemed to him that people whispered about him when they saw him at his usual desk in the choir. His friends passed him merely bowing to him, and he was aware that he had done that which would be regarded by every one around him as unpardonable. And yet,—what ought he to have done? He acknowledged to himself that he had been very foolish, mad,—quite demented at the moment,—when he allowed himself to think it possible that he should marry Camilla French. But having found out how mad he had been at that moment, having satisfied himself that to live with her as his wife would be impossible, was he not right to break the engagement? Could anything be so wicked as marrying a woman whom he—hated? Thus he tried to excuse himself; but yet he knew that all the world would condemn him. Life in Exeter would be impossible, if no way to social pardon could be opened for him. He was willing to do anything within bounds in mitigation of his offence. He would give up fifty pounds a year to Camilla for his life,—or he would marry Bella. Yes; he would marry Bella at once,—if Camilla would only consent, and give up that idea of stabbing some one. Bella French was not very nice in his eyes; but she was quiet, he thought, and it might be possible to live with her. Nevertheless, he told himself over and over again that the manner in which unmarried men with incomes were set upon by ladies in want of husbands was very disgraceful to the country at large. That mission to Natal which had once been offered to him would have had charms for him now, of which he had not recognised the force when he rejected it.
"Do you think that he ever was really engaged to her?" Dorothy said to her aunt. Dorothy was now living in a seventh heaven of happiness, writing love-letters to Brooke Burgess every other day, and devoting to this occupation a number of hours of which she ought to have been ashamed; making her purchases for her wedding,—with nothing, however, of the magnificence of a Camilla,—but discussing everything with her aunt, who urged her on to extravagances which seemed beyond the scope of her own economical ideas; settling, or trying to settle, little difficulties which perplexed her somewhat, and wondering at her own career. She could not of course be married without the presence of her mother and sister, and her aunt,—with something of a grim courtesy,—had intimated that they should be made welcome to the house in the Close for the special occasion. But nothing had been said about Hugh. The wedding was to be in the Cathedral, and Dorothy had a little scheme in her head for meeting her brother among the aisles. He would no doubt come down with Brooke, and nothing perhaps need be said about it to Aunt Stanbury. But still it was a trouble. Her aunt had been so good that Dorothy felt that no step should be taken which would vex the old woman. It was evident enough that when permission had been given for the visit of Mrs. Stanbury and Priscilla, Hugh's name had been purposely kept back. There had been no accidental omission. Dorothy, therefore, did not dare to mention it,—and yet it was essential for her happiness that he should be there. At the present moment Miss Stanbury's intense interest in the Stanbury wedding was somewhat mitigated by the excitement occasioned by Mr. Gibson's refusal to be married. Dorothy was so shocked that she could not bring herself to believe the statement that had reached them through Martha.
"Of course he was engaged to her. We all knew that," said Miss Stanbury.
"I think there must have been some mistake," said Dorothy. "I don't see how he could do it."
"There is no knowing what people can do, my dear, when they're hard driven. I suppose we shall have a lawsuit now, and he'll have to pay ever so much money. Well, well, well! see what a deal of trouble you might have saved!"
"But he'd have done the same to me, aunt;—only, you know, I never could have taken him. Isn't it better as it is, aunt? Tell me."
"I suppose young women always think it best when they can get their own ways. An old woman like me has only got to do what she is bid."
"But this was best, aunt;—was it not?"
"My dear, you've had your way, and let that be enough. Poor Camilla French is not allowed to have hers at all. Dear, dear, dear! I didn't think the man would ever have been such a fool to begin with;—or that he would ever have had the heart to get out of it afterwards." It astonished Dorothy to find that her aunt was not loud in reprobation of Mr. Gibson's very dreadful conduct.
In the meantime Mrs. French had written to her brother at Gloucester. The maid-servant, in making Miss Camilla's bed, and in "putting the room to rights," as she called it,—which description probably was intended to cover the circumstances of an accurate search,—had discovered, hidden among some linen,—a carving knife! such a knife as is used for the cutting up of fowls; and, after two days' interval, had imparted the discovery to Mrs. French. Instant visit was made to the pantry, and it was found that a very aged but unbroken and sharply-pointed weapon was missing. Mrs. French at once accused Camilla, and Camilla, after some hesitation, admitted that it might be there. Molly, she said, was a nasty, sly, wicked thing, to go looking in her drawers, and she would never leave anything unlocked again. The knife, she declared, had been taken up-stairs, because she had wanted something very sharp to cut,—the bones of her stays. The knife was given up, but Mrs. French thought it best to write to her brother, Mr. Crump. She was in great doubt about sundry matters. Had the carving knife really pointed to a domestic tragedy;—and if so, what steps ought a poor widow to take with such a daughter? And what ought to be done about Mr. Gibson? It ran through Mrs. French's mind that unless something were done at once, Mr. Gibson would escape scot free. It was her wish that he should yet become her son-in-law. Poor Bella was entitled to her chance. But if Bella was to be disappointed,—from fear of carving knives, or for other reasons,—then there came the question whether Mr. Gibson should not be made to pay in purse for the mischief he had done. With all these thoughts and doubts running through her head, Mrs. French wrote to her brother at Gloucester.
There came back an answer from Mr. Crump, in which that gentleman expressed a very strong idea that Mr. Gibson should be prosecuted for damages with the utmost virulence, and with the least possible delay. No compromise should be accepted. Mr. Crump would himself come to Exeter and see the lawyer as soon as he should be told that there was a lawyer to be seen. As to the carving knife, Mr. Crump was of opinion that it did not mean anything. Mr. Crump was a gentleman who did not believe in strong romance, but who had great trust in all pecuniary claims. The Frenches had always been genteel. The late Captain French had been an officer in the army, and at ordinary times and seasons the Frenches were rather ashamed of the Crump connection. But now the timber merchant might prove himself to be a useful friend.
Mrs. French shewed her brother's letter to Bella,—and poor Bella was again sore-hearted, seeing that nothing was said in it of her claims. "It will be dreadful scandal to have it all in the papers!" said Bella.
"But what can we do?"
"Anything would be better than that," said Bella. "And you don't want to punish Mr. Gibson, mamma."
"But, my dear, you see what your uncle says. What can I do, except go to him for advice?"
"Why don't you go to Mr. Gibson yourself, mamma?"
But nothing was said to Camilla about Mr. Crump;—nothing as yet. Camilla did not love Mr. Crump, but there was no other house except that of Mr. Crump's at Gloucester to which she might be sent, if it could be arranged that Mr. Gibson and Bella should be made one. Mrs. French took her eldest daughter's advice, and went to Mr. Gibson;—taking Mr. Crump's letter in her pocket. For herself she wanted nothing,—but was it not the duty of her whole life to fight for her daughters? Poor woman! If somebody would only have taught her how that duty might best be done, she would have endeavoured to obey the teaching. "You know I do not want to threaten you," she said to Mr. Gibson; "but you see what my brother says. Of course I wrote to my brother. What could a poor woman do in such circumstances except write to her brother?"
"If you choose to set the bloodhounds of the law at me, of course you can," said Mr. Gibson.
"I do not want to go to law at all;—God knows I do not!" said Mrs. French. Then there was a pause. "Poor dear Bella!" ejaculated Mrs. French.
"Dear Bella!" echoed Mr. Gibson.
"What do you mean to do about Bella?" asked Mrs. French.
"I sometimes think that I had better take poison and have done with it!" said Mr. Gibson, feeling himself to be very hard pressed.