Wrecked in Port/Book II, Chapter VII

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Chapter VII.Marian's Reply.

Marian held the letter in her hand for a moment, irresolute whether to open it and read it at once, or to defer its perusal until another opportunity, when her mind might be less perturbed, and the feeling of conscious guilt then uppermost in her soul might have become quieted and soothed down. She was fully alive to the knowledge that she had behaved with the blackest treachery to Walter Joyce, had dealt him the severest stab, the deadliest blow, of which she was capable, had—for the time at least—completely blackened his future prospects; and yet, although he had done nothing to deserve this base treatment—on the contrary had been for ever loyal and devoted to her under the most adverse circumstances—her feeling for him was not one of pity, of regret, or even of contempt, but of downright hatred. She knew that she had been seriously to blame in neglecting all correspondence with her lover of late, and she imagined that the letter, which she still held unopened in her hand, was doubtless one of remonstrance or complaint. He had no right now to address her after such fashion, or indeed after any fashion whatever. This last thought struck her for an instant with a touch of tenderness, but she quickly put it aside as she thrust the letter into the bosom of her dress, and made her way to her mother's room.

She found Mrs. Ashurst seated in the bay window, at the little round table, on which lay her large-printed Bible, her bottle of smelling salts, and her spectacle case. Mrs. Ashurst had always been a small-framed, delicate-featured woman, but in these last few months she seemed to have shrunk away almost to nothing. The light steel frame of her spectacles looked disproportionately heavy on her thin nose, and her sunk pallid face, with the complexion of that dead white colour so often seen in old women, was almost lost in the plaits and frills of her neat cap. Though the day was fine and bright outside, the old lady evidently felt the cold; she wore a thick twilled woollen shawl thrown over her shoulders, and her cosy arm-chair was in the full view of the fire. She looked up as Marian entered, and, when she recognised the visitor, gave a little smile of welcome, took off her spectacles, closed her book, and put up her face for her daughter's kiss.

"What a long time you have been away, dear!" she said, in the softest little voice. "I thought you were never coming back! I was wondering what had become of you!"

"Did you think Dr. Osborne had run off with me in the four-wheeler, mother?" said Marian, smiling. "The knight and his means of flight are about equally romantic! We're later than usual, dear, because Hooton church is closed for repairs, and we've been to Helmingham!"

"Yes, I know that; but Maud and Gertrude went to Helmingham too, didn't they? And I'm sure I've heard their voices about the house this half-hour!"

"There were all sorts of Helmingham people to speak to in the churchyard after service—Mrs. Simmons, who is growing quite grey; and old Mrs. Peak, whose feet are very bad again, so bad that she can hardly get about now, poor soul; and young Freeman and young Ball, who have taken Mr. Smyth's cornchandlery business at Brocksopp, and go over there next week; and Sam Baker, who is very much grown, and of whom Mr. Benthall speaks very highly. They all asked very kindly after you, mother!"

"I'm very much obliged to them, my dear. I shan't trouble them long, and——"

"Now, don't you remember your promise, never to talk in that way again?"

"Well, my dear, I won't if you don't like it. As for myself——however, no matter! And did you walk back with Mr. Creswell?"

"Yes, mother. Maud and Gertrude hurried on, and Mr. Creswell and I came leisurely after."

"You'll become quite old-fashioned, if you're so much with Mr. Creswell, Marian. Though why I say 'become,' I'm sure I don't know. You've always been old-fashioned from a child up."

"And am likely to remain so, dear, to all appearances!" said Marian, with a soft smile, bending down and kissing her mother's forehead. "Have you taken your medicine? No! then let me give it to you!" She went to a small cabinet, and brought out a tumbler and a spoon.

"I'm very glad you thought of the medicine, Marian," said the old lady; "not that it does me the least good, let Dr. Osborne say what he may, but because your fetching those things from that place reminded me of something I wanted to say to you. I've been all this morning—ever since I finished reading the Lessons—I've been going through the furniture in that parlour of Mrs. Swainson's in my mind, and I'm perfectly certain there's nothing, not even a common cupboard, to lock up anything!"

"Isn't there, mother?" said Marian, wearily.

"Isn't there? No indeed there is nothing, dear! Though you don't seem to think much about it, it's a very serious thing. Of course, one would keep the tea and sugar in the caddy, but there are many little odds and ends that ought to be locked up, and—are you listening to me, Marian?"

"Yes, mother!" she said, but her looks belied her words. She was leaning against the mantelpiece, her head resting on her hand, and her thoughts were evidently far away.

"I wonder you had not noticed that, Marian, when we went over the lodgings," pursued Mrs. Ashurst. "You're generally such a one to notice these kind of things, and I've been used to depend upon you, so that I think nothing about them. What shall we do about that? I suppose Mrs. Swainson would not be inclined to buy a cabinet—a second-hand one would do perfectly——"

"I don't think we need go into the question. We shall never go to Mrs. Swainson's lodgings!"

"No? What shall we do then?"

"Remain here!"

"Well, my dear," said the old lady, "if you change your plans so often, how am I possibly to know where we're going, or what we're going to do? Not that I want to be consulted, but I really might as well be a chair or a table for the manner in which I'm treated. I thought you said, not more than a fortnight ago, that it was impossible we could stop here any longer?"

"So I did, mother! but circumstances have changed since then. This morning, as we walked from church, Mr. Creswell asked me to become his wife!"

"His wife! Mr. Creswell! you to—and you accepted him?"

"I did!"

The old lady fell back in her chair, her eyes closed, her hands fluttering nervously before her. Marian ran to her mother and knelt by her side, but Mrs. Ashurst revived almost immediately—revived sufficiently to place her hand round her daughter's neck and to whisper in her ear, "For my sake?"

"I don't understand you, dearest mother!"

"For my sake? You've done this for my sake! that I may be comfortable and happy for the rest of my life, that I may have these things, luxuries"—pointing with her hand round the room. "You've sacrificed yourself! It must not be, listen, Marian—it must not be!"

"Darling mother, you're all wrong, indeed you are—you're quite mistaken."

"Marian, it must not be! I'm a weakly woman I know, but what answer should I make to your dear father when I meet him again—soon now, very soon, please God!—if I permitted this thing? What would he say if he learned that I was selfish enough to permit you to sacrifice yourself, you whom he so worshipped, to become the wife of an old man, in order that I might profit by it? What would he think of Mr. Creswell, who pretended to be his friend, and who would——"

"Mother, dearest mother, you must not speak against Mr. Creswell, please! Recollect, he is to be my husband!"

"Very well, my dear," said the old lady, quietly, "I'll ask you one question, and after that you'll never hear me open my lips on the matter. Do you love Mr. Creswell?"

"Yes, mother!"

"Better than any other man living?"

"Ye—yes, mother!" She hesitated for an instant, but the answer came round and firm at last.

"You swear that to me?"

"Yes, mother!"

"That's enough, my dear! I shall be ready to face your father now." Mrs. Ashurst then removed her arm from her daughter's neck and lay back in her chair. After a minute or two she told Marian she had heard the luncheon gong sound, and that she would prefer being left alone for a little. When Marian came up to kiss her before leaving the room, the little old lady's white face became suffused with a glow of colour, and the voice in which she prayed God bless her child, and keep her happy throughout her life, was broken with emotion, and weaker and fainter than ever.

When she was alone Mrs. Ashurst pondered long and earnestly over what she had just heard. Of course, the question of Marian's future—and to her parents as well as herself the future of every girl means her marriage—had been often thought of by her mother. She and her dead husband had talked of it in the summer evenings after supper and before retiring to rest, the only time which the school-work left for James Ashurst to devote to himself, and even then he was generally rather fatigued with past, or pre-occupied with growing work. It was very general, the talk between them, and principally carried on by Mrs. Ashurst; she had wondered when Marian would marry, and whom; she had gone through the list of eligible young men in the neighbourhood, and had speculated on their incomes and their chances of being thrown with Marian in such little company as they kept. She had wondered how they at home would be able to get on without her; whether she herself would be able to undertake the domestic superintendence as she had done in the old days, before Marian was of an age to be useful; whether Marian would not settle somewhere near where she might still take an interest in her old work, and many other odd and profitless speculations, to which the dominie would give an affirmative or negative grunt or comment, wondering all the while how he was to meet that acceptance which he had given to Barlow, and which became due on the twenty-seventh, or whether his old college chum South, now a flourishing physician in Cheltenham, would lend him the fifty pounds for which he had made so earnest an appeal. But all this seemed years ago to Mrs. Ashurst as she thought of it. For many months before her husband's death the subject had not been mooted between them; the cold, calm, external impassibility, and the firm determination of Marian's character, seemed to her mother to mark her for one of those women destined by nature to be single, and therefore somewhat fitted for the condition. A weak woman herself, and with scarcely any perception of character, believing that nearly all women were made in the same mould, and after the same type, Mrs. Ashurst could not understand the existence of the volcano under the placid surface. Only gushing, giggling, blushing girls fulfilled her idea of loving women, or women lovable by men. Marian was so "odd," and "strange," so determined, so strong-minded, that she never seemed to think of love-making, nor indeed, her mother thought, had she been ever so much that way disposed would she have had any time for it.

And now Marian was going to be married? Years rolled away, and the old lady saw herself in the same condition, but how differently circumstanced. Her James was young, and strong, and handsome. How splendid he looked in his flannel boating-dress, when he came to spend a hurried holiday at her father's river-side cottage! how all the people in the church admired him on their wedding-day! It was impossible that Marian could love this man, who was quite old enough to be her father, love him, that is, in the proper way, in the way that a husband should be loved. She could look up to him, and respect, and reverence him, and so on, but that was not the way in which she had loved her James. She had not the least respect for him, but used to laugh at him for his awkwardness, and great strong clumsy ways, never knowing what to do with his long legs and his great feet, and used to call him "a great goose," she recollected that, and the recollection brought the colour to her face, and made her smile in spite of herself. Marian could never call Mr. Creswell "a great goose," could never think of him so familiarly, no matter how long they might be married. What could have brought it about? She had very good eyes, she thought, and yet she had never suspected Mr. Creswell of any partiality for Marian, any, at least, beyond that which a man in his position, and of his age, might be expected to feel for a bright, intelligent girl, with whom he was thrown into frequent contact. And as for Marian, it was the last thing she should have expected of her. If she were to think of marriage, which Mrs. Ashurst never contemplated, she would not have suffered herself to be thrown away on a man so much older than herself, she would have looked for some one whom she could love. No! it was what had first struck her, and the more she thought about it, the more convinced she grew! Marian had sacrificed herself on the shrine of filial duty, she had accepted the position of Mr. Creswell's wife in order that her mother might be able to continue in the house where all possible comforts and luxuries were at her command. It was a good motive, a noble affectionate resolve, but it would never turn out well, she was sure of that. There had been a baronet once under James's tuition; what was his name? Attride, Sir Joseph Attride, a young man of rather weak intellect, who had been sent by his friends to be what James called "coached for something," and who had a very large fortune. Why did not Marian take him, or Mr. Lawrence, the miller and churchwarden, who was very rich, and took so much snuff. Either of them would have been much more suited to her than Mr. Creswell. And so the old lady sat, chewing the cud of sweet and bitter fancy, but always coming back to her proposition that Marian had sacrificed herself for her mother's sake, throughout the afternoon.

When Marian left her mother she did not take the hint about the luncheon bell—the pretence under which Mrs. Ashurst had asked to be left to herself. She knew that if her absence from the table were remarked, it would be attributed to the fact of her being engaged in attendance on her mother. She knew further that Mr. Creswell would not expect to see her just then, and she calculated on having two or three hours to herself free from all interruption. So she went straight to her own room, turned the key in the lock, sat herself down in a low chair opposite the fire—fires are kept constantly alive in that north-midland county, where coals are cheap, and the clay soil cold and damp—took Walter Joyce's letter from the bosom of her dress, opened, and began to read it. It was a task-work which she had to go through, and she nerved herself as for a task-work. Her face was cold and composed, her lower jaw set and rigid. As she read on the rigidity of her muscles seemed to increase. She uttered no sound, but read carefully every word. A slight expression of scorn crossed her face for a moment at Walter's insisting on the necessity of their good faith towards each other, but the next instant it vanished, and the set rigidity returned—returned but to be equally fleeting, to be swept away in a storm of weeping, in a hurricane of tears, in a wild outburst of genuine womanly feeling, showing itself in heaving bosom, in tear-blistered face, in passionate rocking to and fro, in frenzied claspings of the hands and tossing of the head, and in low moaning cries of, "Oh, my love! my love!" It was the perusal of the end of Joyce's letter that had brought Marian Ashurst into this state; it was the realisation of the joy which, in his utter devotion to her, must have filled his heart as he was enabled to offer to share what he imagined great prosperity with her, that wrung her conscience and showed her treatment of him in its worst light. It was of her alone that he thought when this offer was made to him. He spoke of it simply as a means to an end—that end their marriage and the comfort of her mother, whose burden he also proposed to undertake. He said nothing of what hard work, what hitherto unaccustomed responsibility, it would entail upon him; he thought but of the peace of mind, the freedom from worry, the happiness which he imagined it would bring to her. How noble he was! how selfless and single-minded! This was a man to live and die for and with, indeed! Was it too late? Should she go bravely and tell Mr. Creswell all? He was sensible and kind hearted, would see the position, and appreciate her motives, though the blow would be a heavy one for him. He would let her retract her consent, he would——Impossible! It might have been possible if she had read the letter before she had told her mother of Mr. Creswell's proposal, but now impossible. Even to her mother she could not lay bare the secrets of her heart, disclose the slavery in which she was held by that one ruling passion under whose control she had broken her own plighted word, and run the risk of breaking one of the truest and noblest hearts that ever beat. No, she could not do that. She was growing calmer now; her tears had ceased to flow, and she was walking about the room, thinking the matter out. No! even suppose—well, this proposal had not been made: it would have been impossible to move Mrs. Ashurst in her then state to Berlin, and she could not have gone without her; so that Walter must either have gone alone, or the marriage must have been deferred. And then the income—four hundred a year. It was very good, no doubt, in comparison to what they had been existing on since papa's death—very superior to anything they could have expected, quite a sufficiency for one or two young people to begin life upon; but for three, and the third one an invalid, in a foreign country! No; it was quite impossible. Marian looked round the room as she said these words; her eyes lighted on the bright furniture, the pretty prints that adorned the walls, the elegant ornaments and knick-knacks scattered about, the hundred evidences of wealth and taste which were henceforth to be at her entire command, and repeated, "Quite impossible!" more decisively than before. By this time she was quite herself again, had removed every trace of her recent discomposure, and had made up her mind definitively as to her future. Only one thing troubled her;—what should be her immediate treatment of Walter Joyce? Should she ignore the receipt of his letter, leave it unanswered, take the chance of his understanding from her silence that all was over between them? Or should she write to him, telling him exactly what had happened—putting it, of course, in the least objectionable way for herself? Or should she temporise, giving her mother's delicate state of health and impossibility of removal abroad as the ground of her declining to be married at once, as he required, and beginning, by various hints, which she thought she could manage cleverly enough, to pave the way for the announcement, to be delayed as long as practicable, that their engagement was over, and that she was going to marry some one else? At first she was strongly inclined to act upon the last of these three motives, thinking that it would be easier to screen herself, or, at all events to bear the brunt of Joyce's anger when he was abroad. But, after a little consideration, a better spirit came over her. She had to do what was a bad thing at best; she would do it in the least offensive manner possible; she would write to him.

She sat down at the little, ink-bespattered, old-fashioned writing-desk which she had had for so many years, on which she had written so often to her lover, and which contained a little packet of his letters, breathing of hope and trust and deep-rooted affection in every line, and wrote:

"Woolgreaves, Sunday.

"My dear Walter,—I have something to tell you which you must know at once. I can approach the subject in no roundabout fashion, because I know it will cause you a great shock, and it is better for you to know it at once. I do not pretend to any doubt about the pain and grief which I am sure it will cause you. I will tell you my reasons for the step I am about to take when I tell you what I have already done. Walter, I have broken my engagement with you. I have promised to marry Mr. Creswell.

"I write this to you at once, almost directly after he proposed to me, and I have accepted him. Does it seem harsh and coarse in me to announce this to you so immediately? Believe me, the announcement is made from far different motives. I could not bear to be deceiving you. You will sneer at this, and say I have been deceiving you all along; I swear I have not. You will think that the very silence for which you reproached me in the letter just received has been owing to my dislike to tell you of the change in affairs. I swear it has not. I had no idea until this morning that Mr. Creswell liked me in any especial way; certainly none that he would ever ask me to become his wife.

"When he asked me, I had not had your letter. If I had, it would have made no difference in the answer I made to Mr. Creswell, but it deepens the pain with which I now write to you, showing me, as it does to an extent which I did not before quite realise, the store which you set by what is now lost to us for ever. I do not say this in excuse of myself, or my deeds; I have no excuse to make. I have tried, and tried hard, to live in the position of life in which I have been placed. I have struggled with poverty, and tried to face the future—which would have been worse than poverty, penury, misery, want perhaps—with calmness. I have failed. I cannot help it, it is my nature to love money and all that money brings, to love comforts and luxuries, to shrink from privation. Had I gone straight from my father's death-bed to your house as your wife, I might perhaps have battled on, but we came here, and—I cannot go back. You will be far happier without me when your first shock is over. I should have been an impossible wife for a poor man. I know I should—complaining, peevish, irritable. Ever repining at my poverty, ever envying the wealth of others. You are better without me, Walter, you are, indeed! Our ways of life will be very different, and we shall never come across each other in any probability. If we should, I hope we shall meet as friends. I am sure it will not be very long before you recognise the wisdom of the course I am now taking, and are grateful to me for having taken it. You are full of talent, which you will now doubtless turn to good account, and of worthy aspirations which you will find some one to sympathise with, and share the upward career which I am sure is before you. I thought I could have done as much at one time, but I know now that I could not, and I should be only acting basely and wickedly towards you, though you will not think it more basely and wickedly than I am now acting with you, if I had gone on pretending that I could, and had burdened you for life with a soured and discontented woman. I have no more to say. "Marian."

"You do not repent of what you said to me this morning, Marian?" said Mr. Creswell, in a whisper, as he took her into dinner.

"On the contrary," she replied in the same tone, "I am too happy to have been able to gratify you by saying it."

"What has happened with Miss A.?" whispered Gertrude to Maud, at the same time; "I don't like the look in her eyes!"

And certainly they did look triumphant, almost insolently so, when their glances fell on the girls.