The Nebuly Coat/Chapter Sixteen

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A day or two later Miss Joliffe said to Anastasia:

"I think you had a letter from Mr Westray this morning, my dear, had you not? Did he say anything about his return? Did he say when he was coming back?"

"No, dear aunt, he said nothing about coming back. He only wrote a few lines on a matter of business."

"Oh yes, just so," Miss Joliffe said dryly, feeling a little hurt at what seemed like any lack of confidence on her niece's part.

Miss Joliffe would have said that she knew Anastasia's mind so well that no secrets were hid from her. Anastasia would have said that her aunt knew everything except a few little secrets, and, as a matter of fact, the one perhaps knew as much of the other as it is expedient that age should know of youth. "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a hell of heaven, a heaven of hell." Of all earthly consolations this is the greatest, that the mind is its own place. The mind is an impregnable fortress which can be held against all comers, the mind is a sanctuary open day or night to the pursued, the mind is a flowery pleasance where shade refreshes even in summer droughts. To some trusted friend we try to give the clue of the labyrinth, but the ball of silk is too short to guide any but ourselves along all the way. There are sunny mountain-tops, there are innocent green arbours, or closes of too highly-perfumed flowers, or dank dungeons of despair, or guilty mycethmi black as night, where we walk alone, whither we may lead no one with us by the hand.

Miss Euphemia Joliffe would have liked to ignore altogether the matter of Westray's letter, and to have made no further remarks thereon; but curiosity is in woman a stronger influence than pride, and curiosity drove her to recur to the letter.

"Thank you, my dear, for explaining about it. I am sure you will tell me if there are any messages for me in it."

"No, there was no message at all for you, I think," said Anastasia. "I will get it for you by-and-by, and you shall see all he says;" and with that she left the room as if to fetch the letter. It was only a subterfuge, for she felt Westray's correspondence burning a hole in her pocket all the while; but she was anxious that her aunt should not see the letter until an answer to it had been posted; and hoped that if she once escaped from the room, the matter would drop out of memory. Miss Joliffe fired a parting shot to try to bring her niece to her bearings as she was going out:

"I do not know, my dear, that I should encourage any correspondence from Mr Westray, if I were you. It would be more seemly, perhaps, that he should write to me on any little matter of business than to you." But Anastasia feigned not to hear her, and held on her course.

She betook herself to the room that had once been Mr Sharnall's, but was now distressingly empty and forlorn, and there finding writing materials, sat down to compose an answer to Westray's letter. She knew its contents thoroughly well, she knew its expressions almost by heart, yet she spread it out on the table before her, and read and re-read it as many times as if it were the most difficult of cryptograms.

"Dearest Anastasia," it began, and she found a grievance in the very first word, "Dearest." What right had he to call her "Dearest"? She was one of those unintelligible females who do not shower superlatives on every chance acquaintance. She must, no doubt, have been callous as judged by modern standards, or at least, singularly unimaginative, for among her few correspondents she had not one whom she addressed as "dearest." No, not even her aunt, for at such rare times of absence from home as she had occasion to write to Miss Joliffe, "My dear Aunt Euphemia" was the invocation.

It was curious that this same word "Dearest" had occasioned Westray also considerable thought and dubiety. Should he call her "Dearest Anastasia," or "Dear Miss Joliffe"? The first sounded too forward, the second too formal. He had discussed this and other details with his mother, and the die had at last fallen on "Dearest." At the worst such an address could only be criticised as proleptic, since it must be justified almost immediately by Anastasia's acceptance of his proposal.

"Dearest Anastasia—for dearest you are and ever will be to me—I feel sure that your heart will go out to meet my heart in what I am saying; that your kindness will support me in the important step which has now to be taken."

Anastasia shook her head, though there was no one to see her. There was a suggestion of fate overbearing prudence in Westray's words, a suggestion that he needed sympathy in an unpleasant predicament, that jarred on her intolerably.

"I have known you now a year, and know that my happiness is centred in you; you too have known me a year, and I trust that I have read aright the message that your eyes have been sending to me.

"'For I shall happiest be to-night,
Or saddest in the town;
Heaven send I read their message right,
Those eyes of hazel brown.'"

Anastasia found space in the press of her annoyance to laugh. It was more than a smile, it was a laugh, a quiet little laugh to herself, which in a man would have been called a buckle. Her eyes were not hazel brown, they were no brown at all; but then brown rhymed with town, and after all the verse might perhaps be a quotation, and must so be taken only to apply to the situation in general. She read the sentence again, "I have known you now a year; you too have known me a year." Westray had thought this poetic insistence gave a touch of romance, and balanced the sentence; but to Anastasia it seemed the reiteration of a platitude. If he had known her a year, then she had known him a year, and to a female mind the sequitur was complete.

"Have I read the message right, dearest? Is your heart my own?"

Message? What message did he speak of? What message did he imagine she had wished to give him with her eyes? He had stared at her persistently for weeks past, and if her eyes sometimes caught his, that was only because she could not help it; except when between whiles she glanced at him of set purpose, because it amused her to see how silly a man in love may look.

"Say that it is; tell me that your heart is my own" (and the request seemed to her too preposterous to admit even of comment).

"I watch your present, dear Anastasia, with solicitude. Sometimes I think that you are even now exposed to dangers of whose very existence you know nothing; and sometimes I look forward with anxiety to the future, so undecipherable, if misfortune or death should overtake your aunt. Let me help you to decipher this riddle. Let me be your shield now, and your support in the days to come. Be my wife, and give me the right to be your protector. I am detained in London by business for some days more; but I shall await your answer here with overwhelming eagerness, yet, may I say it? not without hope.

"Your most loving and devoted
"Edward Westray."

She folded the letter up with much deliberation, and put it back into its envelope. If Westray had sought far and wide for means of damaging his own cause, he could scarcely have found anything better calculated for that purpose than these last paragraphs. They took away much of that desire to spare, to make unpleasantness as little unpleasant as may be, which generally accompanies a refusal. His sententiousness was unbearable. What right had he to advise before he knew whether she would listen to him? What were these dangers to which she was even now exposed, and from which Mr Westray was to shield her? She asked herself the question formally, though she knew the answer all the while. Her own heart had told her enough of late, to remove all difficulty in reading between Mr Westray's lines. A jealous man is, if possible, more contemptible than a jealous woman. Man's greater strength postulates a broader mind and wider outlook; and if he fail in these, his failure is more conspicuous than woman's. Anastasia had traced to jealousy the origin of Westray's enigmatic remarks; but if she was strong enough to hold him ridiculous for his pains, she was also weak enough to take a woman's pleasure in having excited the interest of the man she ridiculed.

She laughed again at the proposal that she should join him in deciphering any riddles, still more such as were undecipherable; and the air of patronage involved in his anxiety to provide for her future was the more distasteful in that she had great ideas of providing for it herself. She had told herself a hundred times that it was only affection for her aunt that kept her at home. Were "anything to happen" to Miss Joliffe, she would at once seek her own living. She had often reckoned up the accomplishments which would aid her in such an endeavour. She had received her education—even if it were somewhat desultory and discontinuous—at good schools. She had always been a voracious reader, and possessed an extensive knowledge of English literature, particularly of the masters of fiction; she could play the piano and the violin tolerably, though Mr Sharnall would have qualified her estimate. She had an easy touch in oils and water-colour, which her father said she must have inherited from his mother—from that Sophia Joliffe who painted the great picture of the flowers and caterpillar, and her spirited caricatures had afforded much merriment to her schoolfellows. She made her own clothes, and was sure that she had a taste in matters of dress design and manufacture that would bring her distinction if she were only given the opportunity of employing it; she believed that she had an affection for children, and a natural talent for training them, though she never saw any at Cullerne. With gifts such as these, which must be patent to others as well as herself, there would surely be no difficulty in obtaining an excellent place as governess if she should ever determine to adopt that walk of life; and she was sometimes inclined to gird at Fate, which for the present led her to deprive the world of these benefits.

In her inmost heart, however, she doubted whether she would be really justified in devoting herself to teaching; for she was conscious that she might be called to fill a higher mission, and to instruct by the pen rather than by word of mouth. As every soldier carries in his knapsack the baton of the Field Marshal, so every girl in her teens knows that there lie hidden in the recesses of her armoire, the robes and coronet and full insignia of a first-rate novelist. She may not choose to take them out and air them, the crown may tarnish by disuse, the moth of indolence may corrupt, but there lies the panoply in which she may on any day appear fully dight, for the astonishment of an awakening world. Jane Austen and Maria Edgworth are heroines, whose aureoles shine in the painted windows of such airy castles; Charlotte Bronte wrote her masterpieces in a seclusion as deep as that of Bellevue Lodge; and Anastasia Joliffe thought many a time of that day when, afar off from her watch-tower in quiet Cullerne, she would follow the triumphant progress of an epoch-making romance.

It would be published under a nom de plume, of course, she would not use her own name till she had felt her feet; and the choice of the pseudonym was the only definite step towards this venture that she had yet made. The period was still uncertain. Sometimes the action was to be placed in the eighteenth century, with tall silver urns and spindled-legged tables, and breast-waisted dresses; sometimes in the struggle of the Roses, when barons swam rivers in full armour after a bloody bout; sometimes in the Civil War, when Vandyke drew the arched eyebrow and taper hand, and when the shadow of death was over all.

It was to the Civil War that her fancy turned oftenest, and now and again, as she sat before her looking-glass, she fancied that she had a Vandyke face herself. And so it was indeed; and if the mirror was fogged and dull and outworn, and if the dress that it reflected was not of plum or amber velvet, one still might fancy that she was a loyalist daughter whose fortunes were fallen with her master's. The Limner of the King would have rejoiced to paint the sweet, young, oval face and little mouth; he would have found the space between the eyebrow and the eyelid to his liking.

If the plot were still shadowy, her characters were always with her, in armour or sprigged prints; and, the mind being its own place, she took about a little court of her own, where dreadful tragedies were enacted, and valorous deeds done; where passionate young love suffered and wept, and where a mere girl of eighteen, by consummate resolution, daring, beauty, genius, and physical strength, always righted the situation, and brought peace at the last.

With resources such as these, the future did not present itself in dark colours to Anastasia; nor did its riddle appear to her nearly so undecipherable as Mr Westray had supposed. She would have resented, with all the confidence of inexperience, any attempt to furnish her with prospects; and she resented Westray's offer all the more vigorously because it seemed to carry with it a suggestion of her own forlorn position, to insist unduly on her own good fortune in receiving such a proposal, and on his condescension in making it.

There are women who put marriage in the forefront of life, whose thoughts revolve constantly about it as a centre, and with whom an advantageous match, or, failing that, a match of some sort, is the primary object. There are others who regard marriage as an eventuality, to be contemplated without either eagerness or avoidance, to be accepted or declined according as its circumstances may be favourable or unfavourable. Again, there are some who seem, even from youth, to resolutely eliminate wedlock from their thoughts, to permit themselves no mental discussion upon this subject. Though a man profess that he will never marry, experience has shown that his resolve is often subject to reconsideration. But with unmarrying women the case is different, and unmarried for the most part they remain, for man is often so weak-kneed a creature in matters of the heart, that he refrains from pursuing where an unsympathetic attitude discourages pursuit. It may be that some of these women, also, would wish to reconsider their verdict, but find that they have reached an age when there is no place for repentance; yet, for the most part, woman's resolve upon such matters is more stable than man's, and that because the interests at stake in marriage are for her more vital than can ever be the case with man.

It was to the class of indifferentists that Anastasia belonged; she neither sought nor shunned a change of state, but regarded marriage as an accident that, in befalling her, might substantially change the outlook. It would render a life of teaching, no doubt, impossible; domestic or maternal cares might to some extent trammel even literary activity (for, married or not married, she was determined to fulfil her mission of writing), but in no case was she inclined to regard marriage as an escape from difficulties, as the solution of so trivial a problem as that of existence.

She read Westray's letter once more from beginning to end. It was duller than ever. It reflected its writer; she had always thought him unromantic, and now he seemed to her intolerably prosaic, conceited, pettifogging, utilitarian. To be his wife! She had rather slave as a nursery-governess all her life! And how could she write fiction with such a one for mentor and company? He would expect her to be methodic, to see that eggs were fresh, and beds well aired. So, by thinking, she reasoned herself into such a theoretic reprobation of this attempt upon her, that his offer became a heinous crime. If she answered him shortly, brusquely, nay rudely, it would be but what he deserved for making her ridiculous to herself by so absurd a proposal, and she opened her writing-case with much firmness and resolution.

It was a little wooden case covered in imitation leather, with Papeterie stamped in gold upon the top. She had no exaggerated notions as to its intrinsic worth, but it was valuable in her eyes as being a present from her father. It was, in fact, the only gift he ever had bestowed upon her; but on this he had expended at least half a crown, in a fit of unusual generosity when he sent her with a great flourish of trumpets to Mrs Howard's school at Carisbury. She remembered his very words. "Take this, child," he said; "you are now going to a first-class place of education, and it is right that you should have a proper equipment," and so gave her the papeterie. It had to cover a multitude of deficiencies, and poor Anastasia lamented that it had not been a new hair-brush, half a dozen pocket-handkerchiefs, or even a sound pair of shoes.

Still it had stood in good stead, for with it she had written all her letters ever since, and being the only receptacle with lock and key to which she had access, she had made it a little ark and coffer for certain girlish treasures. With such it was stuffed so full that they came crowding out as she opened it. There were several letters to which romance attached, relics of that delightful but far too short school-time at Carisbury; there was her programme, with rudely-scribbled names of partners, for the splendid dance at the term's end, to which a selection of other girls' brothers were invited; a pressed rose given her by someone which she had worn in her bosom on that historic occasion, and many other equally priceless mementoes. Somehow these things seemed now neither so romantic nor so precious as on former occasions; she was even inclined to smile, and to make light of them, and then a little bit of paper fluttered off the table on to the floor. She stooped and picked up the flap of an envelope with the coronet and "Fording" stamped in black upon it which she had found one day when Westray's waste-paper basket was emptied. It was a simple device enough, but it must have furnished her food for thought, for it lay under her eyes on the table for at least ten minutes before she put it carefully back into the papeterie, and began her letter to Westray.

She found no difficulty in answering, but the interval of reflection had soothed her irritation, and blunted her animosity. Her reply was neither brusque nor rude, it leant rather to conventionalism than to originality, and she used, after all, those phrases which have been commonplaces in such circumstances, since man first asked and woman first refused. She thanked Mr Westray for the kind interest which he had taken in her, she was deeply conscious of the consideration which he had shown her. She was grieved—sincerely grieved—to tell him that things could not be as he wished. She was so afraid that her letter would seem unkind; she did not mean it to be unkind. However difficult it was to say it now, she thought it was the truest kindness not to disguise from him that things never could be as he wished. She paused a little to review this last sentiment, but she allowed it to remain, for she was anxious to avoid any recrudescence of the suppliant's passion, and to show that her decision was final. She should always feel the greatest esteem for Mr Westray; she trusted that the present circumstances would not interrupt their friendship in any way. She hoped that their relations might continue as in the past, and in this hope she remained very truly his.

She gave a sigh of relief when the letter was finished, and read it through carefully, putting in commas and semicolons and colons at what she thought appropriate places. Such punctilio pleased her; it was, she considered, due from one who aspired to a literary style, and aimed at making a living by the pen. Though this was the first answer to a proposal that she had written on her own account, she was not altogether without practice in such matters, as she had composed others for her heroines who had found themselves in like position. Her manner, also, was perhaps unconsciously influenced by a perusal of "The Young Person's Compleat Correspondent, and Guide to Answers to be given in the Various Circumstances of Life," which, in a tattered calf covering, formed an item in Miss Euphemia's library.

It was not till the missive was duly sealed up and posted that she told her aunt of what had happened. "There is Mr Westray's letter," she said, "if you would care to read it," and passed over to Miss Joliffe the piece of white paper on which a man had staked his fate.

Miss Joliffe took the letter with an attempt to assume an indifferent manner, which was unsuccessful, because an offer of marriage has about it a certain exhalation and atmosphere that betrays its importance even to the most unsuspicious. She was a slow reader, and, after wiping and adjusting her spectacles, sat down for a steady and patient consideration of the matter before her.

But the first word that she deciphered, "Dearest," startled her composure, and she pressed on through the letter with a haste that was foreign to her disposition. Her mouth grew rounder as she read, and she sighed out "Dear's" and "Dear Anastasia's" and "Dear Child's" at intervals as a relief to her feelings.

Anastasia stood by her, following the lines of writing that she knew by heart, with all the impatience of one who is reading ten times faster than another who turns the page.

Miss Joliffe's mind was filled with conflicting emotions; she was glad at the prospect of a more assured future that was opening before her niece, she was hurt at not having been taken sooner into confidence, for Anastasia must certainly have known that he was going to propose; she was chagrined at not having noticed a courtship which had been carried on under her very eyes; she was troubled at the thought that the marriage would entail the separation from one who was to her as a child.

How weary she would find it to walk alone down the long paths of old age! how hard it was to be deprived of a dear arm on whose support she had reckoned for when "the slow dark hours begin"! But she thrust this reflection away from her as selfish, and contrition for having harboured it found expression in a hand wrinkled and roughened by hard wear, which stole into Anastasia's.

"My dear," she said, "I am very glad at your good fortune; this is a great thing that has befallen you." A general content that Anastasia should have received a proposal silenced her misgivings.

To the recipient, an offer of marriage, be it good, bad, or indifferent, to be accepted or to be refused, brings a certain complacent satisfaction. She may pretend to make light of it, to be displeased at it, to resent it, as did Anastasia; but in her heart of hearts there lurks the self-appreciating reflection that she has won the completest admiration of a man. If he be a man that she would not marry under any conditions, if he be a fool, or a spendthrift, or an evil-liver, he is still a man, and she has captured him. Her relations share in the same pleasurable reflections. If the offer is accepted, then a future has been provided for one whose future, maybe, was not too certain; if it is declined, then they congratulate themselves on the high morale or strong common-sense of a kinswoman who refuses to be won by gold, or to link her destiny with an unsuitable partner.

"It is a great thing, my dear, that has befallen you," Miss Joliffe repeated. "I wish you all happiness, dear Anastasia, and may all blessings wait upon you in this engagement."

"Aunt," interrupted her niece, "please don't say that. I have refused him, of course; how could you think that I should marry Mr Westray? I never have thought of any such thing with him. I never had the least idea of his writing like this."

"You have refused him?" said the elder lady with a startled emphasis. Again a selfish reflection crossed her mind—they were not to be parted after all—and again she put it resolutely away. She ran over in her mind all the possible objections that could have influenced her niece in arriving at such a conclusion. Religion was the keynote of Miss Joliffe's life; to religion her thought reverted as the needle to the pole, and to it she turned for an explanation now. It must be some religious consideration that had proved an obstacle to Anastasia.

"I do not think you need find any difficulty in his having been brought up as a Wesleyan," she said, with a profound conviction that she had put her finger on the matter, and with some consciousness of her own perspicacity. "His father has been dead some time, and though his mother is still alive, you would not have to live with her. I do not think, dear, she would at all wish you to become a Methodist. As for our Mr Westray, your Mr Westray, I should say now," and she assumed that expression of archness which is considered appropriate to such occasions, "I am sure he is a sound Churchman. He goes regularly to the minster on Sundays, and I dare say, being an architect, and often in church on week-days, he has found out that the order of the Church of England is more satisfactory than that of any other sect. Though I am sure I do not wish to say one word against Wesleyans; they are no doubt true Protestants, and a bulwark against more serious errors. I rejoice that your lover's early training will have saved him from any inclination to ritualism."

"My dear aunt," Anastasia broke in, with a stress of earnest deprecation on the "dear" that startled her aunt, "please do not go on like that. Do not call Mr Westray my lover; I have told you that I will have nothing to do with him."

Miss Joliffe's thoughts had moved through a wide arc. Now that this offer of marriage was about to be refused, now that this engagement was not to be, the advantages that it offered stood out in high relief. It seemed too sad that the curtain should be rung down just as the action of a drama of intense interest was beginning, that the good should slip through their fingers just as they were grasping it. She gave no thought now to that fear of a lonely old age which had troubled her a few minutes before; she only saw the provision for the future which Anastasia was wilfully sacrificing. Her hand tightened automatically, and crumpled a long piece of paper that she was holding. It was only a milkman's bill, and yet it might perhaps have unconsciously given a materialistic colour to her thoughts.

"We should not reject any good thing that is put before us," she said a little stiffly, "without being very certain that we are right to do so. I do not know what would become of you, Anastasia, if anything were to happen to me."

"That is exactly what he says, that is the very argument which he uses. Why should you take such a gloomy view of things? Why should something happening always mean something bad. Let us hope something good will happen, that someone else will make me a better offer." She laughed, and went on reflectively: "I wonder whether Mr Westray will come back here to lodge; I hope he won't."

Hardly were the words out of her mouth when she was sorry for uttering them, for she saw the look of sadness which overspread Miss Joliffe's face.

"Dear aunt," she cried, "I am so sorry; I didn't mean to say that. I know what a difference it would make; we cannot afford to lose our last lodger. I hope he will come back, and I will do everything I can to make things comfortable, short of marrying him. I will earn some money myself. I will write."

"How will you write? Who is there to write to?" Miss Joliffe said, and then the blank look on her face grew blanker, and she took out her handkerchief. "There is no one to help us. Anyone who ever cared for us is dead long ago; there is no one to write to now."