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The silent system in regard to Mary was carried on in the attorney's house for a week, during which her sufferings were very great. From the first she made up her mind to oppose her stepmother's cruelty by sheer obstinacy. She had been told that she must be made to marry Mr. Twentyman, and the injustice of that threat had at once made her rebel against her stepmother's authority. She would never allow her stepmother to make her marry any one. She put herself into a state of general defiance and said as little as was said to her. But her father's silence to her nearly broke her heart. On one or two occasions, as opportunity offered itself to her, she said little soft words to him in privacy. Then he would partly relent, would kiss her and bid her be a good girl, and would quickly hurry away from her. She could understand that he suffered as well as herself, and she perhaps got some consolation from the conviction. At last, on the following Saturday she watched her opportunity and brought to him when he was alone in his office a letter which she had written to Larry Twentyman. "Papa," she said, "would you read that?" He took and read the letter, which was as follows:--
My Dear Mr. Twentyman,
Something was said about two months which are now very nearly over. I think I ought to save you from the trouble of coming to me again by telling you in a letter that it cannot be as you would have it. I have thought of it a great deal and have of course been anxious to do as my friends wish. And I am very grateful to you, and know how good and how kind you are. And I would do anything for you,-- except this. But it never can be. I should not write like this unless I were quite certain. I hope you won't be angry with me and think that I should have spared you the trouble of doubting so long. I know now that I ought not to have doubted at all; but I was so anxious not to seem to be obstinate that I became foolish about it when you asked me. What I say now is quite certain.
Dear Mr. Twentyman, I shall always think of you with esteem and regard, because I know how good you are; and I hope you will come to like somebody a great deal better than me who will always love you with her whole heart.
Yours very truly,
P.S. I shall show this letter to papa.
Mr. Masters read it as she stood by him,--and then read it again very slowly rubbing one hand over the other as he did so. He was thinking what he should do;--or rather what he should say. The idea of stopping the letter never occurred to him.
If she chose to refuse the man of course she must do so; and perhaps, if she did refuse him, there was no way better than this. "Must it be so, Mary?" he said at last.
"Because I do not love him as I should have to love any man that I wanted to marry. I have tried it, because you wished it, but I cannot do it"
"What will mamma say?"
"I am thinking more, papa, of you," she said putting her arm over his shoulder. "You have always been so good to me, and so kind!" Here his heart misgave him, for he felt that during the last week he had not been kind to her. "But you would not wish me to give myself to a man and then not to care for him."
"No, my dear."
"I couldn't do it. I should fall down dead first. I have thought so much about it,--for your sake; and have tried it with myself. I couldn't do it"
"Is there anybody else, Mary?" As he asked the question he held her hand beneath his own on the desk, but he did not dare to look into her face. He had been told by his wife that there was somebody else; that the girl's mind was running upon Mr. Surtees, because Mr. Surtees was a gentleman. He was thinking of Mr. Surtees, and certainly not of Reginald Morton.
To her the moment was very solemn and when the question was asked she felt that she could not tell her father a falsehood. She had gradually grown bold enough to assure herself that her heart was occupied with that man who had travelled with her to Cheltenham; and she felt that that feeling alone must keep her apart from any other love. And yet, as she had no hope, as she had assured herself that her love was a burden to be borne and could never become a source of enjoyment, why should her secret be wrested from her? What good would such a violation do? But she could not tell the falsehood, and therefore she held her tongue.
Gradually he looked up into her face, still keeping her hand pressed on the desk under his. It was his left hand that so guarded her, while she stood by his right shoulder. Then he gently wound his right arm round her waist and pressed her to him. "Mary," he said, "if it is so, had you not better tell me?" But she was sure that she had better not mention that name even to him. It was impossible that she should mention it. She would have outraged to herself her own maiden modesty by doing so. "Is it,"--he asked very softly,--"is it Surtees?"
"Oh no!" she said quickly, almost escaping from the grasp of his arm in her start.
Then he was absolutely at a loss. Beyond Mr. Surtees or Larry Twentyman he did not know what possible lover Dillsborough could have afforded. And yet the very rapidity of her answer when the curate's name had been mentioned had convinced him that there was some other person,--had increased the strength of that conviction which her silence had produced. "Have you nothing that you can tell me, Mary?"
"No, papa." Then he gave her back the letter and she left the room without another word. Of course his sanction to the letter had now been given, and it was addressed to Chowton Farm and posted before half an hour was over. She saw him again in the afternoon of the same day and asked him to tell her stepmother what she had done. "Mamma ought to know," she said.
"But you haven't sent it"
"Yes, papa;--it is in the post"
Then it occurred to him that his wife would tell him that he should have prevented the sending of the letter,--that he should have destroyed it and altogether taken the matter with a high hand. "You can't tell her yourself?" he asked.
"I would rather you did. Mamma has been so hard to me since I came home."
He did tell his wife and she overwhelmed him by the violence of her reproaches. He could never have been in earnest, or he would not have allowed such a letter as that to pass through his hands. He must be afraid of his own child. He did not know his own duty. He had been deceiving her,--his wife,--from first to last. Then she threw herself into a torrent of tears declaring that she had been betrayed. There had been a conspiracy between them, and now everything might go to the dogs, and she would not lift up her hands again to save them. But before the evening came round she was again on the alert, and again resolved that she would not even yet give way. What was there in a letter more than in a spoken word? She would tell Larry to disregard the letter. But first she made a futile attempt to clutch the letter from the guardianship of the Post Office, and she went to the Postmaster assuring him that there had been a mistake in the family, that a wrong letter had been put into a wrong envelope, and begging that the letter addressed to Mr. Twentyman might be given back to her. The Postmaster, half vacillating in his desire to oblige a neighbour, produced the letter and Mrs. Masters put out her hand to grasp it; but the servant of the public,--who had been thoroughly grounded in his duties by one of those trusty guardians of our correspondence who inspect and survey our provincial post offices,--remembered himself at the last moment and expressing the violence of his regret, replaced the letter in the box. Mrs. Masters, in her anger and grief, condescended to say very hard things to her neighbour; but the man remembered his duty and was firm.
On that evening Larry Twentyman did not attend the Dillsborough Club, having in the course of the week notified to the attorney that he should be a defaulter. Mr. Masters himself went over earlier than usual, his own house having become very uncomfortable to him. Mrs. Masters for an hour sat expecting that Larry would come, and when the evening passed away without his appearance, she was convinced that the unusual absence was a part of the conspiracy against her.
Larry did not get his letter till the Monday morning. On the last Thursday and Saturday he had consoled himself for his doubts with the U.R.U., and was minded to do so on the Monday also. He had not gone to the club on Saturday and had moped about Chowton all the Sunday in a feverish state because of his doubts. It seemed to him that the two months would never be over. On the Monday he was out early on the farm and then came down in his boots and breeches, and had his red coat ready at the fire while he sat at breakfast. The meet was fifteen miles off and he had sent on his hunter, intending to travel thither in his dog cart. Just as he was cutting himself a slice of beef the postman came, and of course he read his letter. He read it with the carving knife in his hand, and then he stood gazing at his mother. "What is it, Larry?" she asked; "is anything wrong?"
"Wrong,--well; I don't know," he said. "I don't know what you call wrong. I shan't hunt; that's all." Then he threw aside the knife and pushed away his plate and marched out of the room with the open letter in his hand.
Mrs. Twentyman knew very well of his love,--as indeed did nearly all Dillsborough; but she had heard nothing of the two months and did not connect the letter with Mary Masters. Surely he must have lost a large sum of money. That was her idea till she saw him again late in the afternoon.
He never went near the hounds that day or near his business. He was not then man enough for either. But he walked about the fields, keeping out of sight of everybody. It was all over now. It must be all over when she wrote to him a letter like that. Why had she tempted him to thoughts of happiness and success by that promise of two months' grace? He supposed that he was not good enough;--or that she thought he was not good enough. Then he remembered his acres, and his material comforts, and tried to console himself by reflecting that Mary Masters might very well do worse in the world. But there was no consolation in it. He had tried his best because he had really loved the girl. He had failed, and all the world,-- all his world, would know that he had failed. There was not a man in the club,--hardly a man in the hunt,--who was not aware that he had offered to Mary Masters. During the last two months he had not been so reticent as was prudent, and had almost boasted to Fred Botsey of success. And then how was he to live at Chowton Farm without Mary Masters as his wife? As he returned home he almost made up his mind that he would not continue to live at Chowton Farm.
He came back through Dillsborough Wood; and there, prowling about, he met Goarly. "Well, Mr. Twentyman," said the man, "I am making it all straight now with his Lordship."
"I don't care what you're doing," said Larry in his misery. "You are an infernal blackguard and that's the best of you."
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