Cousin Henry




Mr Owen

In this way Isabel spent four very uncomfortable weeks in her new home before Mr Owen returned to Hereford. Nor was her discomfort much relieved by the prospect of his return. She knew all the details of his circumstances, and told herself that the man would be wrong to marry without any other means than those he at present possessed. Nor did she think of herself that she was well qualified to be the wife of a poor gentleman. She believed that she could starve if it were required of her, and support her sufferings with fortitude. She believed that she could work,—work from morning till night, from week to week, from month to month, without complaining; but she did not think that she could make herself sweet as a wife should be sweet to a husband with a threadbare coat, or that she could be tender as a mother should be tender while dividing limited bread among her children. To go and die and have done with it, if that might be possible, was the panacea of her present troubles most commonly present to her mind. Therefore, there was no comfort to her in that promised coming of her lover of which the girls chattered to her continually. She had refused her lover when she held the proud position of the heiress of Llanfeare,—refused him, no doubt, in obedience to her uncle's word, and not in accordance with her own feelings; but still she had refused him. Afterwards, when she had believed that there would be a sum of money coming to her from her uncle's will, there had been room for possible doubt. Should the money have proved sufficient to cause her to be a relief rather than a burden to the husband, it might have been her duty to marry him, seeing that she loved him with all her heart,—seeing that she was sure of his love. There would have been much against it even then, because she had refused him when she had been a grand lady; but, had the money been forthcoming, there might have been a doubt. Now there could be no doubt. Should she who had denied him her hand because she was her uncle's heiress,—on that avowed ground alone,—should she, now that she was a pauper, burden him with her presence? He, no doubt, would be generous enough to renew his offer. She was well aware of his nobility. But she, too, could be generous, and, as she thought, noble. Thus it was that her spirit spoke within her, bidding her subject all the sweet affections of her heart to a stubborn pride.

The promised return, therefore, of Mr Owen did not make her very happy.

"He will be here to-morrow," said her stepmother to her. "Mrs Richards expects him by the late train to-night. I looked in there yesterday and she told me." Mrs Richards was the respectable lady with whom Mr Owen lodged.

"I dare say he will," said Isabel wearily—sorry, too, that Mr Owen's goings and comings should have been investigated.

"Now, Isabel, let me advise you. You cannot be so unjust to Mr Owen as to make him fancy for a moment that you will refuse your uncle's money. Think of his position,—about two hundred and fifty a year in all! With your two hundred added it would be positive comfort; without it you would be frightfully poor."

"Do you think I have not thought of it?"

"I suppose you must. But then you are so odd and so hard, so unlike any other girl I ever saw. I don't see how you could have the face to refuse the money, and then to eat his bread."

This was an unfortunate speech as coming from Mrs Brodrick, because it fortified Isabel in the reply she was bound to make. Hitherto the stepmother had thought it certain that the marriage would take place in spite of such maiden denials as the girl had made; but now the denial had to be repeated with more than maiden vigour.

"I have thought of it," said Isabel,—"thought of it very often, till I have told myself that conduct such as that would be inexpressibly base. What! to eat his bread after refusing him mine when it was believed to be so plentiful! I certainly have not face enough to do that,—neither face nor courage for that. There are ignoble things which require audacity altogether beyond my reach."

"Then you must accept the money from your cousin."

"Certainly not," said Isabel; "neither that nor yet the position which Mr Owen will perhaps offer me again."

"Of course he will offer it to you."

"Then he must be told that on no consideration can his offer be accepted."

"This is nonsense. You are both dying for each other."

"Then we must die. But as for that, I think that neither men nor young women die for love now-a-days. If we love each other, we must do without each other, as people have to learn to do without most of the things that they desire."

"I never heard of such nonsense, such wickedness! There is the money. Why should you not take it?"

"I can explain to you, mother," she said sternly, it being her wont to give the appellation but very seldom to her stepmother, "why I should not take Mr Owen, but I cannot tell you why I cannot take my cousin's money. I can only simply assure you that I will not do so, and that I most certainly shall never marry any man who would accept it."

"I consider that to be actual wickedness,—wickedness against your own father."

"I have told papa. He knows I will not have the money."

"Do you mean to say that you will come here into this house as an additional burden, as a weight upon your poor father's shoulder, when you have it in your power to relieve him altogether? Do you not know how pressed he is, and that there are your brothers to be educated?" Isabel, as she listened to this, sat silent, looking upon the ground, and her stepmother went on, understanding nothing of the nature of the mind of her whom she was addressing. "He had reason to expect, ample reason, that you would never cost him a shilling. He had been told a hundred times that you would be provided for by your uncle. Do you not know that it was so?"

"I do. I told him so myself when I was last here before Uncle Indefer's death."

"And yet you will do nothing to relieve him? You will refuse this money, though it is your own, when you could be married to Mr Owen to-morrow?" Then she paused, waiting to find what might be the effect of her eloquence.

"I do not acknowledge papa's right or yours to press me to marry any man."

"But I suppose you acknowledge your right to be as good as your word? Here is the money; you have only got to take it."

"What you mean is that I ought to acknowledge my obligation to be as good as my word. I do. I told my father that I would not be a burden to him, and I am bound to keep to that. He will have understood that at the present moment I am breaking my promise through a mistake of Uncle Indefer's which I could not have anticipated."

"You are breaking your promise because you will not accept money that is your own."

"I am breaking my promise, and that is sufficient. I will go out of the house and will cease to be a burden. If I only knew where I could go, I would begin to-morrow."

"That is all nonsense," said Mrs Brodrick, getting up and bursting out of the room in anger. "There is a man ready to marry you, and there is the money. Anybody can see with half an eye what is your duty."

Isabel, with all the eyes that she had, could not see what was her duty. That it could not be her duty to take a present of money from the man whom she believed to be robbing her of the estate she felt quite sure. It could not be her duty to bring poverty on a man whom she loved,—especially not as she had refused to confer wealth upon him. It was, she thought, clearly her duty not to be a burden upon her father, as she had told him that no such burden should fall upon him. It was her duty, she thought, to earn her own bread, or else to eat none at all. In her present frame of mind she would have gone out of the house on the moment if any one would have accepted her even as a kitchenmaid. But there was no one to accept her. She had questioned her father on the matter, and he had ridiculed her idea of earning her bread. When she had spoken of service, he had become angry with her. It was not thus that he could be relieved. He did not want to see his girl a maid-servant or even a governess. It was not thus that she could relieve him. He simply wanted to drive her into his views, so that she might accept the comfortable income which was at her disposal, and become the wife of a gentleman whom every one esteemed. But she, in her present frame of mind, cared little for any disgrace she might bring on others by menial service. She was told that she was a burden, and she desired to cease to be burdensome.

Thinking it over all that night, she resolved that she would consult Mr Owen himself. It would, she thought, be easy,—or if not easy at any rate feasible,—to make him understand that there could be no marriage. With him she would be on her own ground. He, at least, had no authority over her, and she knew herself well enough to be confident of her own strength. Her father had a certain right to insist. Even her stepmother had a deputed right. But her lover had none. He should be made to understand that she would not marry him,—and then he could advise her as to that project of being governess, housemaid, schoolmistress, or what not.

On the following morning he came, and was soon closeted with her. When he arrived, Isabel was sitting with Mrs Brodrick and her sisters, but they soon packed up their hemmings and sewings, and took themselves off, showing that it was an understood thing that Isabel and Mr Owen were to be left together. The door was no sooner closed than he came up to her, as though to embrace her, as though to put an arm round her waist before she had a moment to retreat, preparing to kiss her as though she were already his own. She saw it all in a moment. It was as though, since her last remembered interview, there had been some other meeting which she had forgotten,—some meeting at which she had consented to be his wife. She could not be angry with him. How can a girl be angry with a man whose love is so good, so true? He would not have dreamed of kissing her had she stood there before him the declared heiress of Llanfeare. She felt more than this. She was sure by his manner that he knew that she had determined not to take her cousin's money. She was altogether unaware that there had already been some talking that morning between him and her father; but she was sure that he knew. How could she be angry with him?

But she escaped. "No, not that," she said. "It must not be so, Mr Owen;—it must not. It cannot be so."

"Tell me one thing, Isabel, before we go any further, and tell me truly. Do you love me?"

She was standing about six feet from him, and she looked hard into his face, determined not to blush before his eyes for a moment. But she could hardly make up her mind as to what would be the fitting answer to his demand.

"I know," said he, "that you are too proud to tell me a falsehood."

"I will not tell you a falsehood."

"Do you love me?" There was still a pause. "Do you love me as a woman should love the man she means to marry?"

"I do love you!"

"Then, in God's name, why should we not kiss? You are my love and I am yours. Your father and mother are satisfied that it should be so. Seeing that we are so, is it a disgrace to kiss? Having won your heart, may I not have the delight of thinking that you would wish me to be near you?"

"You must know it all," she said, "though it may be unwomanly to tell so much."

"Know what?"

"There has never been a man whose touch has been pleasant to me;—but I could revel in yours. Kiss you? I could kiss your feet at this moment, and embrace your knees. Everything belonging to you is dear to me. The things you have touched have been made sacred to me. The Prayer-Book tells the young wife that she should love her husband till death shall part them. I think my love will go further than that."

"Isabel! Isabel!"

"Keep away from me! I will not even give you my hand to shake till you have promised to be of one mind with me. I will not become your wife."

"You shall become my wife!"

"Never! Never! I have thought it out, and I know that I am right. Things have been hard with me."

"Not to me! They will not have been hard to me when I shall have carried my point with you."

"I was forced to appear before your eyes as the heiress of my uncle."

"Has that made any difference with me?"

"And I was forced to refuse you in obedience to him who had adopted me."

"I understand all that very completely."

"Then he made a new will, and left me some money."

"Of all that I know, I think, every particular."

"But the money is not there." At this he nodded his head as though smiling at her absurdity in going back over circumstances which were so well understood by both of them. "The money is offered to me by my cousin, but I will not take it."

"As to that I have nothing to say. It is the one point on which, when we are married, I shall decline to give you any advice."

"Mr Owen," and now she came close to him, but still ready to spring back should it be necessary, "Mr Owen, I will tell you what I have told no one else."

"Why me?"

"Because I trust you as I trust no one else."

"Then tell me."

"There is another will. There was another will rather, and he has destroyed it."

"Why do you say that? You should not say that. You cannot know it."

"And, therefore, I say it only to you, as I would to my own heart. The old man told me so—in his last moments. And then there is the look of the man. If you could have seen how his craven spirit cowered beneath my eyes!"

"One should not judge by such indications. One cannot but see them and notice them; but one should not judge."

"You would have judged had you seen. You could not have helped judging. Nothing, however, can come of it, except this,—that not for all the world would I take his money."

"It may be right, Isabel, that all that should be discussed between you and me,—right if you wish it. It will be my delight to think that there shall be no secret between us. But, believe me, dearest, it can have no reference to the question between us."

"Not that I should be absolutely penniless?"

"Not in the least."

"But it will, Mr Owen. In that even my father agrees with me." In this she was no doubt wrong. Her father had simply impressed upon her the necessity of taking the money because of her lover's needs. "I will not be a burden at any rate to you; and as I cannot go to you without being a burden, I will not go at all. What does it matter whether there be a little more suffering or a little less? What does it matter?"

"It matters a great deal to me."

"A man gets over that quickly, I think."

"So does a woman,—if she be the proper sort of woman for getting over her difficulties of that kind. I don't think you are."

"I will try."

"I won't." This he said, looking full into her face. "My philosophy teaches me to despise the grapes which hang too high, but to make the most of those which come within my reach. Now, I look upon you as being within my reach."

"I am not within your reach."

"Yes; pardon me for my confidence, but you are. You have confessed that you love me."

"I do."

"Then you will not be so wicked as to deny to me that which I have a right to demand? If you love me as a woman should love the man who is to become her husband, you have no right to refuse me. I have made good my claim, unless there be other reasons."

"There is a reason."

"None but such as I have to judge of. Had your father objected, that would have been a reason; or when your uncle disapproved because of the property, that was a reason. As to the money, I will never ask you to take it, unless you can plead that you yourself are afraid of the poverty—." Then he paused, looking at her as though he defied her to say so much on her own behalf. She could not say that, but sat there panting, frightened by his energy.

"Nor am I," he continued very gently, "the least in the world. Think of it, and you will find that I am right; and then, when next I come, then, perhaps, you will not refuse to kiss me." And so he went.

Oh, how she loved him! How sweet would it be to submit her pride, her independence, her maiden reticences to such a man as that! How worthy was he of all worship, of all confidence, of all service! How definitely better was he than any other being that had ever crossed her path! But yet she was quite sure that she would not marry him.

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