But after that word, that odious word, "enticed," there went another letter up to London of altogether another nature.
"I have changed my mind again," she said,
and have become aware that, though I should die in doing it, – though we should both die if it were possible, – there should be an end of everything between you and me. Yes, Frank; there! I send you back my troth, and demand my own in return. After all why should not one die; – hang oneself if it be necessary? To be self-denying is all that is necessary, – at any rate to a woman. Hanging or lying down and dying, or lingering on and saying one's prayers and knitting stockings, is altogether immaterial. I have sometimes thought Mudbury to be brutal to me, but I have never known him to be untrue, – or even, as I believe, mistaken. He sees clearly and knows what will happen. He tells me that I have enticed you back. I am not true as he is. So I threw him back the word in his teeth, – though its truth at the moment was going like a dagger through my heart. I know myself to have been selfish, unfeeling, unfeminine, when I induced you to surrender yourself to a mode of life which will make you miserable. I have sometimes been proud of myself because I have loved you so truly; but now I hate myself and despise myself because I have been incapable of the first effort which love should make. Love should at any rate be unselfish.
He tells me that you will be miserable and that the misery will be on my head, – and I believe him. There shall be an end of it. I want no promise from you. There may, perhaps, be a time in which Imogene Docimer as a sturdy old maid shall be respected and serene of mind. As a wife who had enticed her husband to his misery she would be respected neither by him nor by herself, – and as for serenity it would be quite out of the question. I have been unfortunate. That is all; – but not half so unfortunate as others that I see around me.
Pray, pray, PRAY, take this as final, and thus save me from renewed trouble and renewed agony.Now I am yours truly, —never again will I be affectionate to any one with true feminine love,Imogene Docimer.
Houston when he received the above letter of course had no alternative but to declare that it could not possibly be regarded as having any avail. And indeed he had heart enough in his bosom to be warmed to something like true heat by such words as these. The cabbages and cradles ran up in his estimation. The small house at Pau, which in some of his more despondent moments had assumed an unqualified appearance of domestic discomfort, was now ornamented and accoutred till it seemed to be a little paradise. The very cabbages blossomed into roses, and the little babies in the cradles produced a throb of paternal triumph in his heart. If she were woman enough to propose to herself such an agony of devotion, could he not be man enough to demand from her a devotion of a different kind? As to Mudbury Docimer's truth, he believed in it not at all, but was quite convinced of the man's brutality.
You have no power of changing your mind again. There must be some limit to vacillations, and that has been reached. Something must be fixed at last. Something has been fixed at last, and I most certainly shall not consent to any further unfixing. What right has Mudbury to pretend to know my feelings? or, for the matter of that, what right have you to accept his description of them? I tell you now that I place my entire happiness in the hope of making you my wife. I call upon you to ignore all the selfish declarations as to my own ideas which I have made in times past. The only right which you could now possibly have to separate yourself from me would come from your having ceased to love me. You do not pretend to say that such is the case; and therefore, with considerable indignation, but still very civilly, I desire that Mudbury with his hard-hearted counsels may go to the —
Enticed! Of course you have enticed me. I suppose that women do as a rule entice men, either to their advantage or disadvantage. I will leave it to you to say whether you believe that such enticement, if it be allowed its full scope, will lead to one or the other as far as I am concerned. I never was so happy as when I felt that you had enticed me back to the hopes of former days.
Now I am yours, as always, and most affectionately,
I shall expect the same word back from you by return of post scored under as eagerly as those futile "prays."
Imogene when she received this was greatly disturbed, – not knowing how to carry herself in her great resolve, – or whether indeed that resolve must not be again abandoned. She had determined, should her lover's answer be as she had certainly intended it to be when she wrote her letter, to go at once to her brother and to declare to him that the danger was at an end, and that he might return to London without any fear of a relapse on her part. But she could not do so with such a reply as that she now held in her pocket. If that reply could, in very truth, be true, then there must be another revulsion, another change of purpose, another yielding to absolute joy. If it could be the case that Frank Houston no longer feared the dangers that he had feared before, if he had in truth reconciled himself to a state of things which he had once described as simple poverty, if he really placed his happiness on the continuation of his love, then, – then, why should she make the sacrifice? Why should she place such implicit confidence in her brother's infallibility against error, seeing that by doing so she would certainly shipwreck her own happiness, – and his too, if his words were to be trusted?
He called upon her to write to him again by return of post. She was to write to him and unsay those prayers, and comfort him with a repetition of that dear word which she had declared that she would never use again with all its true meaning. That was his express order to her. Should she obey it, or should she not obey it? Should she vacillate again, or should she leave his last letter unanswered with stern obduracy? She acknowledged to herself that it was a dear letter, deserving the best treatment at her hands, giving her lover credit, probably, for more true honesty than he deserved. What was the best treatment? Her brother had plainly shown his conviction that the best treatment would be to leave him without meddling with him any further. Her sister-in-law, though milder in her language, was, she feared, of the same opinion. Would it not be better for him not to be meddled with? Ought not that to be her judgment, looking at the matter all round?
She did not at any rate obey him at all points, for she left his letter in her pocket for three or four days, while she considered the matter backwards and forwards.
During this period of heroism it had been necessary to Houston to have some confidential friend to whom from time to time he could speak of his purpose. He could not go on eating slices of boiled mutton at eating-houses, and drinking dribblets of bad wine out of little decanters no bigger than the bottles in a cruet stand, without having some one to encourage him in his efforts. It was a hard apprenticeship, and, coming as it did rather late in life for such a beginning, and after much luxurious indulgence, required some sympathy and consolation. There were Tom Shuttlecock and Lord John Battledore at the club. Lord John was the man as to whose expulsion because of his contumacious language so much had been said, but who lived through that and various other dangers. These had been his special friends, and to them he had confided everything in regard to the Tringle marriage. Shuttlecock had ridiculed the very idea of love, and had told him that everything else was to be thrown to the dogs in pursuit of a good income. Battledore had reminded him that there was "a deuced deal of cut-and-come-again in a hundred and twenty thousand pounds." They had been friends, not always altogether after his own heart, but friends who had served his purpose when he was making his raid upon Lombard Street. But they were not men to whom he could descant on the wholesomeness of cabbages as an article of daily food, or who would sympathise with the struggling joys of an embryo father. To their thinking, women were occasionally very convenient as being the depositaries of some of the accruing wealth of the world. Frank had been quite worthy of their friendship as having "spotted" and nearly "run down" for himself a well-laden city heiress. But now Tom Shuttlecock and Lord John Battledore were distasteful to him, – as would he be to them. But he found the confidential friend in his maiden aunt.
Miss Houston was an old lady, – older than her time, as are some people, – who lived alone in a small house in Green Street. She was particular in calling it Green Street, Hyde Park. She was very anxious to have it known that she never occupied it during the months of August, September, and October, – though it was often the case with her that she did not in truth expatriate herself for more than six weeks. She was careful to have a fashionable seat in a fashionable church. She dearly loved to see her name in the papers when she was happy enough to be invited to a house whose entertainments were chronicled. There were a thousand little tricks, – I will not be harsh enough to call them unworthy, – by which she served Mammon. But she did not limit her service to the evil spirit. When in her place in church she sincerely said her prayers. When in London, or out of it, she gave a modicum of her slender income to the poor. And, though she liked to see her name in the papers as one of the fashionable world, she was a great deal too proud of the blood of the Houstons to toady any one or to ask for any favour. She was a neat, clean, nice-looking old lady, who understood that if economies were to be made in eating and drinking they should be effected at her own table and not at that of the servants who waited upon her. This was the confidential friend whom Frank trusted in his new career.
It must be explained that Aunt Rosina, as Miss Houston was called, had been well acquainted with her nephew's earlier engagement, and had approved of Imogene as his future wife. Then had come the unexpected collapse in the uncle's affairs, by which Aunt Rosina as well as others in the family had suffered, – and Frank, much to his aunt's displeasure, had allowed himself to be separated from the lady of his love on account of his comparative poverty. She had heard of Gertrude Tringle and all her money, but from a high standing of birth and social belongings had despised all the Tringles and all their money. To her, as a maiden lady, truth in love was everything. To her, as a well-born lady, good blood was everything. Therefore, though there had been no quarrel between her and Frank, there had been a cessation of sympathetic interest, and he had been thrown into the hands of the Battledores and Shuttlecocks. Now again the old sympathies were revived, and Frank found it convenient to drink tea with his aunt when other engagements allowed it.
"I call that an infernal interference," he said to his aunt, showing her Imogene's letters.
"My dear Frank, you need not curse and swear," said the old lady.
"Infernal is not cursing nor yet swearing." Then Miss Houston, having liberated her mind by her remonstrance, proceeded to read the letter. "I call that abominable," said Frank, alluding of course to the allusions made in the letter to Mudbury Docimer.
"It is a beautiful letter; – just what I should have expected from Imogene. My dear, I will tell you what I propose. Remain as you are both of you for five years."
"Five years. That's sheer nonsense."
"Five years, my dear, will run by like a dream. Five years to look back upon is as nothing."
"But these five years are five years to be looked forward to. It is out of the question."
"But you say that you could not live as a married man."
"Live! I suppose we could live." Then he thought of the cabbages and the cottage at Pau. "There would be seven hundred a-year I suppose."
"Couldn't you do something, Frank?"
"What, to earn money? No; I don't think I could. If I attempted to break stones I shouldn't break enough to pay for the hammers."
"Couldn't you write a book?"
"That would be worse than the stones. I sometimes thought I could paint a picture, – but, if I did, nobody would buy it. As to making money that is hopeless. I could save some, by leaving off gloves and allowing myself only three clean shirts a-week."
"That would be dreadful, Frank."
"It would be dreadful, but it is quite clear that I must do something. An effort has to be made." This he said with a voice the tone of which was almost heroic. Then they discussed the matter at great length, in doing which Aunt Rosina thoroughly encouraged him in his heroism. That idea of remaining unmarried for another short period of five years was allowed to go by the board, and when they parted on that night it was understood that steps were to be taken to bring about a marriage as speedily as possible.
"Perhaps I can do a little to help," said Aunt Rosina, in a faint whisper as Frank left the room.
Frank Houston, when he showed Imogene's letter to his aunt, had already answered it. Then he waited a day or two, not very patiently, for a further rejoinder from Imogene, – in which she of course was to unsay all that she had said before. But when, after four or five days, no rejoinder had come, and his fervour had been increased by his expectation, then he told his aunt that he should immediately take some serious step. The more ardent he was the better his aunt loved him. Could he have gone down and carried off his bride, and married her at once, in total disregard of the usual wedding-cake and St. – George's-Hanover-Square ceremonies to which the Houston family had always been accustomed, she could have found it in her heart to forgive him. "Do not be rash, Frank," she said. He merely shook his head, and as he again left her declared that he was not going to be driven this way or that by such a fellow as Mudbury Docimer.
"As I live, there's Frank coming through the gate." This was said by Imogene to her sister-in-law, as they were walking up and down the road which led from the lodge to the Tregothnan house. The two ladies were at that moment discussing Imogene's affairs. No rejoinder had as yet been made to Frank's last letter, which, to Imogene's feeling, was the most charming epistle which had ever come from the hands of a true lover. There had been passion and sincerity in every word of it; – even when he had been a little too strong in his language as he denounced the hard-hearted counsels of her brother. But yet she had not responded to all this sincerity, nor had she as yet withdrawn the resolution which she had herself declared. Mrs. Docimer was of opinion that that resolution should not be withdrawn, and had striven to explain that the circumstances were now the same as when, after full consideration, they had determined that the engagement should come to an end. At this very moment she was speaking words of wisdom to this effect, and as she did so Frank appeared, walking up from the gate.
"What will Mudbury say?" was Mrs. Docimer's first ejaculation. But Imogene, before she had considered how this danger might be encountered, rushed forward and gave herself up, – I fear we must confess, – into the arms of her lover. After that it was felt at once that she had withdrawn all her last resolution and had vacillated again. There was no ground left even for an argument now that she had submitted herself to be embraced. Frank's words of affection need not here be repeated, but they were of a nature to leave no doubt on the minds of either of the ladies.
Mudbury had declared that he would not receive Houston in his house as his sister's lover, and had expressed his opinion that even Houston would not have the face to show his face there. But Houston had come, and something must be done with him. It was soon ascertained that he had walked over from Penzance, which was but two miles off, and had left his portmanteau behind him. "I wouldn't bring anything," said he. "Mudbury would find it easier to maltreat my things than myself. It would look so foolish to tell the man with a fly to carry them back at once. Is he in the house?"
"He is about the place," said Mrs. Docimer, almost trembling.
"Is he very fierce against me?"
"He thinks it had better be all over."
"I am of a different way of thinking, you see. I cannot acknowledge that he has any right to dictate to Imogene."
"Nor can I," said Imogene.
"Of course he can turn me out."
"If he does I shall go with you," said Imogene.
"We have made up our minds to it," said Frank, "and he had better let us do as we please. He can make himself disagreeable, of course; but he has got no power to prevent us." Now they had reached the house, and Frank was of course allowed to enter. Had he not entered neither would Imogene, who was so much taken by this further instance of her lover's ardour that she was determined now to be led by him in everything. His explanation of that word "enticed" had been so thoroughly satisfactory to her that she was no longer in the least angry with herself because she had enticed him. She had quite come to see that it is the duty of a young woman to entice a young man.
Frank and Imogene were soon left alone, not from any kindness of feeling on the part of Mrs. Docimer, but because the wife felt it necessary to find her husband. "Oh, Mudbury, who do you think has come? He is here!"
"Yes; Frank Houston!"
"In the house?"
"He is in the house. But he hasn't brought anything. He doesn't mean to stay."
"What does that matter? He shall not be asked even to dine here."
"If he is turned out she will go with him! If she says so she will do it. You cannot prevent her. That's what would come of it if she were to insist on going up to London with him."
"He is a scoundrel!"
"No; Mudbury; – not a scoundrel. You cannot call him a scoundrel. There is something firm about him; isn't there?"
"To come to my house when I told him not?"
"But he does really love her."
"At any rate there they are in the breakfast-parlour, and something must be done. I couldn't tell him not to come in. And she wouldn't have come without him. There will be enough for them to live upon. Don't you think you'd better?" Docimer, as he returned to the house, declared that he "did not think he'd better." But he had to confess to himself that, whether it were better or whether it were worse, he could do very little to prevent it.
The greeting of the two men was anything but pleasant. "What I have got to say I would rather say outside," said Docimer.
"Certainly," said Frank. "I suppose I'm to be allowed to return?"
"If he does not," – said Imogene, who at her brother's request had left the room, but still stood at the open door, – "if he does not I shall go to him in Penzance. You will hardly attempt to keep me a prisoner."
"Who says that he is not to return? I think that you are two idiots, but I am quite aware that I cannot prevent you from being married if you are both determined." Then he led the way out through the hall, and Frank followed him. "I cannot understand that any man should be so fickle," he said, when they were both out on the walk together.
"Constant, I should suppose you mean."
"I said fickle, and I meant it. It was at your own suggestion that you and Imogene were to be separated."
"No doubt; it was at my suggestion, and with her consent. But you see that we have changed our minds."
"And will change them again."
"We are steady enough in our purpose, now, at any rate. You hear what she says. If I came down here to persuade her to alter her purpose, – to talk her into doing something of which you disapproved, and as to which she agreed with you, – then you might do something by quarreling with me. But what's the use of it, when she and I are of one mind? You know that you cannot talk her over."
"Where do you mean to live?"
"I'll tell you all about that if you'll allow me to send into Penzance for my things. I cannot discuss matters with you if you proclaim yourself to be my enemy. You say we are both idiots."
"Very well. Then you had better put up with two idiots. You can't cure their idiocy. Nor have you any authority to prevent them from exhibiting it." The argument was efficacious though the idiocy was acknowledged. The portmanteau was sent for, and before the evening was over Frank had again been received at Tregothnan as Imogene's accepted lover.