It may be doubted whether there was a happier young woman in England than Dorothy Stanbury when that September came which was to make her the wife of Mr. Brooke Burgess, the new partner in the firm of Cropper and Burgess. Her early aspirations in life had been so low, and of late there had come upon her such a succession of soft showers of success,—mingled now and then with slight threatenings of storms which had passed away,—that the Close at Exeter seemed to her to have become a very Paradise. Her aunt's temper had sometimes been to her as the threat of a storm, and there had been the Gibson marriage treaty, and the short-lived opposition to the other marriage treaty which had seemed to her to be so very preferable; but everything had gone at last as though she had been Fortune's favourite,—and now had come this beautiful arrangement about Cropper and Burgess, which would save her from being carried away to live among strangers in London! When she first became known to us on her coming to Exeter, in compliance with her aunt's suggestion, she was timid, silent, and altogether without self-reliance. Even they who knew her best had never guessed that she possessed a keen sense of humour, a nice appreciation of character, and a quiet reticent wit of her own, under that staid and frightened demeanour. Since her engagement with Brooke Burgess it seemed to those who watched her that her character had become changed, as does that of a flower when it opens itself in its growth. The sweet gifts of nature within became visible, the petals sprang to view, and the leaves spread themselves, and the sweet scent was felt upon the air. Had she remained at Nuncombe, it is probable that none would ever have known her but her sister. It was necessary to this flower that it should be warmed by the sun of life, and strengthened by the breezes of opposition, and filled by the showers of companionship, before it could become aware of its own loveliness. Dorothy was one who, had she remained ever unseen in the retirement of her mother's village cottage, would have lived and died ignorant of even her own capabilities for enjoyment. She had not dreamed that she could win a man's love,—had hardly dreamed till she had lived at Exeter that she had love of her own to give back in return. She had not known that she could be firm in her own opinion, that she could laugh herself and cause others to laugh, that she could be a lady and know that other women were not so, that she had good looks of her own and could be very happy when told of them by lips that she loved. The flower that blows the quickest is never the sweetest. The fruit that ripens tardily has ever the finest flavour. It is often the same with men and women. The lad who talks at twenty as men should talk at thirty, has seldom much to say worth the hearing when he is forty; and the girl who at eighteen can shine in society with composure, has generally given over shining before she is a full-grown woman. With Dorothy the scent and beauty of the flower, and the flavour of the fruit, had come late; but the fruit will keep, and the flower will not fall to pieces with the heat of an evening.
"How marvellously your bride has changed since she has been here," said Mrs. MacHugh to Miss Stanbury. "We thought she couldn't say boo to a goose at first; but she holds her own now among the best of 'em."
"Of course she does;—why shouldn't she? I never knew a Stanbury yet that was a fool."
"They are a wonderful family, of course," said Mrs. MacHugh; "but I think that of all of them she is the most wonderful. Old Barty said something to her at my house yesterday that wasn't intended to be kind."
"When did he ever intend to be kind?"
"But he got no change out of her. 'The Burgesses have been in Exeter a long time,' she said, 'and I don't see why we should not get on at any rate as well as those before us.' Barty grunted and growled and slunk away. He thought she would shake in her shoes when he spoke to her."
"He has never been able to make a Stanbury shake in her shoes yet," said the old lady.
Early in September, Dorothy went to Nuncombe Putney to spend a week with her mother and sister at the cottage. She had insisted on this, though Priscilla had hinted, somewhat unnecessarily, that Dorothy, with her past comforts and her future prospects, would find the accommodation at the cottage very limited. "I suppose you and I, Pris, can sleep in the same bed, as we always did," she said, with a tear in each eye. Then Priscilla had felt ashamed of herself, and had bade her come.
"The truth is, Dolly," said the elder sister, "that we feel so unlike marrying and giving in marriage at Nuncombe, that I'm afraid you'll lose your brightness and become dowdy, and grim, and misanthropic, as we are. When mamma and I sit down to what we call dinner, I always feel that there is a grace hovering in the air different to that which she says."
"And what is it, Pris?"
"Pray, God, don't quite starve us, and let everybody else have indigestion. We don't say it out loud, but there it is; and the spirit of it might damp the orange blossoms."
She went of course, and the orange blossoms were not damped. She had long walks with her sister round by Niddon and Ridleigh, and even as far distant as Cockchaffington, where much was said about that wicked Colonel as they stood looking at the porch of the church. "I shall be so happy," said Dorothy, "when you and mother come to us. It will be such a joy to me that you should be my guests."
"But we shall not come."
"Why not, Priscilla?"
"I know it will be so. Mamma will not care for going, if I do not go."
"And why should you not come?"
"For a hundred reasons, all of which you know, Dolly. I am stiff, impracticable, ill-conditioned, and very bad at going about visiting. I am always thinking that other people ought to have indigestion, and perhaps I might come to have some such feeling about you and Brooke."
"I should not be at all afraid of that."
"I know that my place in the world is here, at Nuncombe Putney. I have a pride about myself, and think that I never did wrong but once,—when I let mamma go into that odious Clock House. It is a bad pride, and yet I'm proud of it. I haven't got a gown fit to go and stay with you, when you become a grand lady in Exeter. I don't doubt you'd give me any sort of gown I wanted."
"Of course I would. Ain't we sisters, Pris?"
"I shall not be so much your sister as he will be your husband. Besides, I hate to take things. When Hugh sends money, and for mamma's sake it is accepted, I always feel uneasy while it lasts, and think that that plague of an indigestion ought to come upon me also. Do you remember the lamb that came when you went away? It made me so sick."
"But, Priscilla;—isn't that morbid?"
"Of course it is. You don't suppose I really think it grand. I am morbid. But I am strong enough to live on, and not get killed by the morbidity. Heaven knows how much more there may be of it;—forty years, perhaps, and probably the greater portion of that absolutely alone;—"
"No;—you'll be with us then,—if it should come."
"I think not, Dolly. Not to have a hole of my own would be intolerable to me. But, as I was saying, I shall not be unhappy. To enjoy life, as you do, is I suppose out of the question for me. But I have a satisfaction when I get to the end of the quarter and find that there is not half-a-crown due to any one. Things get dearer and dearer, but I have a comfort even in that. I have a feeling that I should like to bring myself to the straw a day." Of course there were offers made of aid,—offers which were rather prayers,—and plans suggested of what might be done between Brooke and Hugh; but Priscilla declared that all such plans were odious to her. "Why should you be unhappy about us?" she continued. "We will come and see you,—at least I will,—perhaps once in six months, and you shall pay for the railway ticket; only I won't stay, because of the gown."
"Is not that nonsense, Pris?"
"Just at present it is, because mamma and I have both got new gowns for the wedding. Hugh sent them, and ever so much money to buy bonnets and gloves."
"He is to be married himself soon,—down at a place called Monkhams. Nora is staying there."
"Yes;—with a lord," said Priscilla. "We sha'n't have to go there, at any rate."
"You liked Nora when she was here?"
"Very much;—though I thought her self-willed. But she is not worldly, and she is conscientious. She might have married that lord herself if she would. I do like her. When she comes to you at Exeter, if the wedding gown isn't quite worn out, I shall come and see her. I knew she liked him when she was here, but she never said so."
"She is very pretty, is she not? He sent me her photograph."
"She is handsome rather than pretty. I wonder why it is that you two should be married, and so grandly married, and that I shall never, never have any one to love."
"Oh, Priscilla, do not say that. If I have a child will you not love it?"
"It will be your child;—not mine. Do not suppose that I complain. I know that it is right. I know that you ought to be married and I ought not. I know that there is not a man in Devonshire who would take me, or a man in Devonshire whom I would accept. I know that I am quite unfit for any other kind of life than this. I should make any man wretched, and any man would make me wretched. But why is it so? I believe that you would make any man happy."
"I hope to make Brooke happy."
"Of course you will, and therefore you deserve it. We'll go home now, dear, and get mamma's things ready for the great day."
On the afternoon before the great day all the visitors were to come, and during the forenoon old Miss Stanbury was in a great fidget. Luckily for Dorothy, her own preparations were already made, so that she could give her time to her aunt without injury to herself. Miss Stanbury had come to think of herself as though all the reality of her life had passed away from her. Every resolution that she had formed had been broken. She had had the great enemy of her life, Barty Burgess, in the house with her upon terms that were intended to be amicable, and had arranged with him a plan for the division of the family property. Her sister-in-law, whom in the heyday of her strength she had chosen to regard as her enemy, and with whom even as yet there had been no reconciliation, was about to become her guest, as was also Priscilla,—whom she had ever disliked almost as much as she had respected. She had quarrelled utterly with Hugh,—in such a manner as to leave no possible chance of a reconciliation,—and he also was about to be her guest. And then, as to her chosen heir, she was now assisting him in doing the only thing, as to which she had declared that if he did do it, he should not be her heir. As she went about the house, under an idea that such a multiplicity of persons could not be housed and fed without superhuman exertion, she thought of all this, and could not help confessing to herself that her life had been very vain. It was only when her eyes rested on Dorothy, and she saw how supremely happy was the one person whom she had taken most closely to her heart, that she could feel that she had done anything that should not have been left undone. "I think I'll sit down now, Dorothy," she said, "or I sha'n't be able to be with you to-morrow."
"Do, aunt. Everything is all ready, and nobody will be here for an hour yet. Nothing can be nicer than the rooms, and nothing ever was done so well before. I'm only thinking how lonely you'll be when we're gone."
"It'll be only for six weeks."
"But six weeks is such a long time."
"What would it have been if he had taken you up to London, my pet? Are you sure your mother wouldn't like a fire in her room, Dorothy?"
"A fire in September, aunt?"
"People live so differently. One never knows."
"They never have but one fire at Nuncombe, aunt, summer or winter."
"That's no reason they shouldn't be comfortable here." However, she did not insist on having the fire lighted.
Mrs. Stanbury and Priscilla came first, and the meeting was certainly very uncomfortable. Poor Mrs. Stanbury was shy, and could hardly speak a word. Miss Stanbury thought that her visitor was haughty, and, though she endeavoured to be gracious, did it with a struggle. They called each other ma'am, which made Dorothy uneasy. Each of them was so dear to her, that it was a pity that they should glower at each other like enemies. Priscilla was not at all shy; but she was combative, and, as her aunt said of her afterwards, would not keep her prickles in. "I hope, Priscilla, you like weddings," said Miss Stanbury to her, not knowing where to find a subject for conversation.
"In the abstract I like them," said Priscilla. Miss Stanbury did not know what her niece meant by liking weddings in the abstract, and was angry.
"I suppose you do have weddings at Nuncombe Putney sometimes," she said.
"I hope they do," said Priscilla, "but I never saw one. To-morrow will be my first experience."
"Your own will come next, my dear," said Miss Stanbury.
"I think not," said Priscilla. "It is quite as likely to be yours, aunt." This, Miss Stanbury thought, was almost an insult, and she said nothing more on the occasion.
Then came Hugh and the bridegroom. The bridegroom, as a matter of course, was not accommodated in the house, but he was allowed to come there for his tea. He and Hugh had come together; and for Hugh a bed-room had been provided. His aunt had not seen him since he had been turned out of the house, because of his bad practices, and Dorothy had anticipated the meeting between them with alarm. It was, however, much more pleasant than had been that between the ladies. "Hugh," she said stiffly, "I am glad to see you on such an occasion as this."
"Aunt," he said, "I am glad of any occasion that can get me an entrance once more into the dear old house. I am so pleased to see you." She allowed her hand to remain in his a few moments, and murmured something which was intended to signify her satisfaction. "I must tell you that I am going to be married myself, to one of the dearest, sweetest, and loveliest girls that ever were seen, and you must congratulate me."
"I do, I do; and I hope you may be happy."
"We mean to try to be; and some day you must let me bring her to you, and shew her. I shall not be satisfied, if you do not know my wife." She told Martha afterwards that she hoped that Mr. Hugh had sown his wild oats, and that matrimony would sober him. When, however, Martha remarked that she believed Mr. Hugh to be as hardworking a young man as any in London, Miss Stanbury shook her head sorrowfully. Things were being very much changed with her; but not even yet was she to be brought to approve of work done on behalf of a penny newspaper.
On the following morning, at ten o'clock, there was a procession from Miss Stanbury's house into the Cathedral, which was made entirely on foot;—indeed, no assistance could have been given by any carriage, for there is a back entrance to the Cathedral, near to the Lady Chapel, exactly opposite Miss Stanbury's house. There were many of the inhabitants of the Close there, to see the procession, and the cathedral bells rang out their peals very merrily. Brooke, the bridegroom, gave his arm to Miss Stanbury, which was, no doubt, very improper,—as he should have appeared in the church as coming from quite some different part of the world. Then came the bride, hanging on her brother, then two bridesmaids,—friends of Dorothy's, living in the town; and, lastly, Priscilla with her mother, for nothing would induce Priscilla to take the part of a bridesmaid. "You might as well ask an owl to sing to you," she said. "And then all the frippery would be thrown away upon me." But she stood close to Dorothy, and when the ceremony had been performed, was the first, after Brooke, to kiss her.
Everybody acknowledged that the bride was a winsome bride. Mrs. MacHugh was at the breakfast, and declared afterwards that Dorothy Burgess,—as she then was pleased to call her,—was a girl very hard to be understood. "She came here," said Mrs. MacHugh, "two years ago, a plain, silent, shy, dowdy young woman, and we all said that Miss Stanbury would be tired of her in a week. There has never come a time in which there was any visible difference in her, and now she is one of our city beauties, with plenty to say to everybody, with a fortune in one pocket and her aunt in the other, and everybody is saying what a fortunate fellow Brooke Burgess is to get her. In a year or two she'll be at the top of everything in the city, and will make her way in the county too."
The compiler of this history begs to add his opinion to that of "everybody," as quoted above by Mrs. MacHugh. He thinks that Brooke Burgess was a very fortunate fellow to get his wife.