Miss Stanbury at this time was known all through Exeter to be very much altered from the Miss Stanbury of old;—or even from the Miss Stanbury of two years since. The Miss Stanbury of old was a stalwart lady who would play her rubber of whist five nights a week, and could hold her own in conversation against the best woman in Exeter,—not to speak of her acknowledged superiority over every man in that city. Now she cared little for the glories of debate; and though she still liked her rubber, and could wake herself up to the old fire in the detection of a revoke or the claim for a second trick, her rubbers were few and far between, and she would leave her own house on an evening only when all circumstances were favourable, and with many precautions against wind and water. Some said that she was becoming old, and that she was going out like the snuff of a candle. But Sir Peter Mancrudy declared that she might live for the next fifteen years, if she would only think so herself. "It was true," Sir Peter said, "that in the winter she had been ill, and that there had been danger as to her throat during the east winds of the spring;—but those dangers had passed away, and, if she would only exert herself, she might be almost as good a woman as ever she had been." Sir Peter was not a man of many words, or given to talk frequently of his patients; but it was clearly Sir Peter's opinion that Miss Stanbury's mind was ill at ease. She had become discontented with life, and therefore it was that she cared no longer for the combat of tongues, and had become cold even towards the card-table. It was so in truth; and yet perhaps the lives of few men or women had been more innocent, and few had struggled harder to be just in their dealings and generous in their thoughts.
There was ever present to her mind an idea of failure and a fear lest she had been mistaken in her views throughout her life. No one had ever been more devoted to peculiar opinions, or more strong in the use of language for their expression; and she was so far true to herself, that she would never seem to retreat from the position she had taken. She would still scorn the new fangles of the world around her, and speak of the changes which she saw as all tending to evil. But, through it all, there was an idea present to herself that it could not be God's intention that things should really change for the worse, and that the fault must be in her, because she had been unable to move as others had moved. She would sit thinking of the circumstances of her own life and tell herself that with her everything had failed. She had loved, but had quarrelled with her lover; and her love had come to nothing—but barren wealth. She had fought for her wealth and had conquered;—and had become hard in the fight, and was conscious of her own hardness. In the early days of her riches and power she had taken her nephew by the hand,—and had thrown him away from her because he would not dress himself in her mirror. She had believed herself to be right, and would not, even now, tell herself that she had been wrong; but there were doubts, and qualms of conscience, and an uneasiness,—because her life had been a failure. Now she was seeking to appease her self-accusations by sacrificing everything for the happiness of her niece and her chosen hero; but as she went on with the work she felt that all would be in vain, unless she could sweep herself altogether from off the scene. She had told herself that if she could bring Brooke to Exeter, his prospects would be made infinitely brighter than they would be in London, and that she in her last days would not be left utterly alone. But as the prospect of her future life came nearer to her, she saw, or thought that she saw, that there was still failure before her. Young people would not want an old woman in the house with them;—even though the old woman would declare that she would be no more in the house than a tame cat. And she knew herself also too well to believe that she could make herself a tame cat in the home that had so long been subject to her dominion. Would it not be better that she should go away somewhere,—and die?
"If Mr. Brooke is to come here," Martha said to her one day, "we ought to begin and make the changes, ma'am."
"What changes? You are always wanting to make changes."
"If they was never made till I wanted them they'd never be made, ma'am. But if there is to be a married couple there should be things proper. Anyways, ma'am, we ought to know;—oughtn't we?"
The truth of this statement was so evident that Miss Stanbury could not contradict it. But she had not even yet made up her mind. Ideas were running through her head which she knew to be very wild, but of which she could not divest herself. "Martha," she said, after a while, "I think I shall go away from this myself."
"Leave the house, ma'am?" said Martha, awestruck.
"There are other houses in the world, I suppose, in which an old woman can live and die."
"There is houses, ma'am, of course."
"And what is the difference between one and another?"
"I wouldn't do it, ma'am, if I was you. I wouldn't do it if it was ever so. Sure the house is big enough for Mr. Brooke and Miss Dorothy along with you. I wouldn't go and make such change as that;—I wouldn't indeed, ma'am." Martha spoke out almost with eloquence, so much expression was there in her face. Miss Stanbury said nothing more at the moment, beyond signifying her indisposition to make up her mind to anything at the present moment. Yes;—the house was big enough as far as rooms were concerned; but how often had she heard that an old woman must always be in the way, if attempting to live with a newly-married couple? If a mother-in-law be unendurable, how much more so one whose connection would be less near? She could keep her own house no doubt, and let them go elsewhere; but what then would come of her old dream, that Burgess, the new banker in the city, should live in the very house that had been inhabited by the Burgesses, the bankers of old? There was certainly only one way out of all these troubles, and that way would be that she should—go from them and be at rest.
Her will had now been drawn out and completed for the third or fourth time, and she had made no secret of its contents either with Brooke or Dorothy. The whole estate she left to Brooke, including the houses which were to become his after his uncle's death; and in regard to the property she had made no further stipulation. "I might have settled it on your children," she said to him, "but in doing so I should have settled it on hers. I don't know why an old woman should try to interfere with things after she has gone. I hope you won't squander it, Brooke."
"I shall be a steady old man by that time," he said.
"I hope you'll be steady at any rate. But there it is, and God must direct you in the use of it, if He will. It has been a burthen to me; but then I have been a solitary old woman." Half of what she had saved she proposed to give Dorothy on her marriage, and for doing this arrangements had already been made. There were various other legacies, and the last she announced was one to her nephew, Hugh. "I have left him a thousand pounds," she said to Dorothy,—"so that he may remember me kindly at last." As to this, however, she exacted a pledge that no intimation of the legacy was to be made to Hugh. Then it was that Dorothy told her aunt that Hugh intended to marry Nora Rowley, one of the ladies who had been at the Clock House during the days in which her mother had lived in grandeur; and then it was also that Dorothy obtained leave to invite Hugh to her own wedding. "I hope she will be happier than her sister," Miss Stanbury said, when she heard of the intended marriage.
"It wasn't Mrs. Trevelyan's fault, you know, aunt."
"I say nothing about anybody's fault; but this I do say, that it was a very great misfortune. I fought all that battle with your sister Priscilla, and I don't mean to fight it again, my dear. If Hugh marries the young lady, I hope she will be more happy than her sister. There can be no harm in saying that."
Dorothy's letter to her brother shall be given, because it will
inform the reader of all the arrangements as they were made up to
that time, and will convey the Exeter news respecting various persons
with whom our story is concerned.
The Close, July 20th, 186—.
The day for my marriage is now fixed, and I wish with all my heart that it was the same with you. Pray give my love to Nora. It seems so odd that, though she was living for a while with mamma at Nuncombe Putney, I never should have seen her yet. I am very glad that Brooke has seen her, and he declares that she is quite magnificently beautiful. Those are his own words.
We are to be married on the 10th of August, a Wednesday, and now comes my great news. Aunt Stanbury says that you are to come and stay in the house. She bids me tell you so with her love; and that you can have a room as long as you like. Of course you must come. In the first place, you must because you are to give me away, and Brooke wouldn't have me if I wasn't given away properly; and then it will make me so happy that you and Aunt Stanbury should be friends again. You can stay as long as you like, but, of course, you must come the day before the wedding. We are to be married in the Cathedral, and there are to be two clergymen, but I don't yet know who they will be;—not Mr. Gibson, certainly, as you were good enough to suggest.
Mr. Gibson is married to Arabella French, and they have gone away somewhere into Cornwall. Camilla has come back, and I have seen her once. She looked ever so fierce, as though she intended to declare that she didn't mind what anybody may think. They say that she still protests that she never will speak to her sister again.
I was introduced to Mr. Barty Burgess the other day. Brooke was here, and we met him in the Close. I hardly knew what he said to me, I was so frightened; but Brooke said that he meant to be civil, and that he is going to send me a present. I have got a quantity of things already, and yesterday Mrs. MacHugh sent me such a beautiful cream-jug. If you'll come in time on the 9th, you shall see them all before they are put away.
Mamma and Priscilla are to be here, and they will come on the 9th also. Poor, dear mamma is, I know, terribly flurried about it, and so is Aunt Stanbury. It is so long since they have seen each other. I don't think Priscilla feels it the same way, because she is so brave. Do you remember when it was first proposed that I should come here? I am so glad I came,—because of Brooke. He will come on the 9th, quite early, and I do so hope you will come with him.
Yours most affectionately,
Give my best, best love to Nora.