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Florence Burton's Return
Though nobody had expressed to Florence at Stratton any fear of Harry Clavering's perfidy, that young lady was not altogether easy in her mind. Weeks and weeks had passed, and she had not heard from him. Her mother was manifestly uneasy, and had announced some days before Florence's departure, her surprise and annoyance in not having heard from her eldest son. When Florence inquired as to the subject of the expected letter, her mother put the question aside, saying, with a little assumed irritability, that of course she liked to get an answer to her letters when she took the trouble to write them. And when the day for Florence's journey drew nigh, the old lady became more and more uneasy--showing plainly that she wished her daughter was not going to London. But Florence, as she was quite determined to go, said nothing to all this. Her father also was uneasy, and neither of them had for some days named her lover in her hearing. She knew that there was something wrong, and felt that it was better that she should go to London and learn the truth.
No female heart was ever less prone to suspicion than the heart of Florence Burton. Among those with whom she had been most intimate nothing had occurred to teach her that men could be false, or women either. When she had heard from Harry Clavering the story of Julia Brabazon, she had, not making much accusation against the sinner in speech, put Julia down in the books of her mind as a bold, bad woman, who could forget her sex, and sell her beauty and her womanhood for money. There might be such a woman here and there, or such a man. There were murderers in the world--but the bulk of mankind is not made subject to murderers. Florence had never considered the possibility that she herself could become liable to such a misfortune. And then, when the day came that she was engaged, her confidence in the man chosen by her was unlimited. Such love as hers rarely suspects. He with whom she had to do was Harry Clavering, and therefore she could not be deceived. Moreover, she was supported by a self-respect and a self-confidence which did not at first allow her to dream that a man who had once loved her would ever wish to leave her. It was to her as though a sacrament as holy as that of the church had passed between them, and she could not easily bring herself to think that that sacrament had been as nothing to Harry Clavering. But nevertheless there was something wrong, and when she left her father's house at Stratton, she was well aware that she must prepare herself for tidings that might be evil. She could bear anything, she thought, without disgracing herself; but there were tidings which might send her back to Stratton a broken woman, fit perhaps to comfort the declining years of her father and mother, but fit for nothing else.
Her mother watched her closely as she sat at her breakfast that morning, but much could not be gained by watching Florence Burton when Florence wished to conceal her thoughts. Many messages were sent to Theodore, to Cecilia, and to the children, messages to others of the Burton clan who were in town, but not a word was said of Harry Clavering. The very absence of his name was enough to make them all wretched, but Florence bore it as the Spartan boy bore the fox beneath his tunic. Mrs. Burton could hardly keep herself from a burst of indignation; but she had been strongly warned by her husband, and restrained herself till Florence was gone. "If he is playing her false," said she, as soon as she was alone with her old husband, "he shall suffer for it, though I have to tear his face with my own fingers."
"Nonsense, my dear; nonsense."
"It is not nonsense, Mr. Burton. A gentleman, indeed! He is to be allowed to be dishonest to my girl because he is a gentleman! I wish there was no such thing as a gentleman;--so I do. Perhaps there would be more honest men then." It was unendurable to her that a girl of hers should be so treated.
Immediately on the arrival of the train at the London platform, Florence espied Cecilia, and in a minute was in her arms. There was a special tenderness in her sister-in-law's caress, which at once told Florence that her fears had not been without cause. Who has not felt the evil tidings conveyed by the exaggerated tenderness of a special kiss? But while on the platform and among the porters she said nothing of herself. She asked after Theodore and heard of the railway confederacy with a show of delight. "He'd like to make a line from Hyde Park Corner to the Tower of London," said Florence, with a smile. Then she asked after the children, and specially for the baby; but as yet she spoke no word of Harry Clavering. The trunk and the bag were at last found; and the two ladies were packed into a cab, and had started. Cecilia, when they were seated, got hold of Florence's hand, and pressed it warmly. "Dearest," said she, "I am so glad to have you with us once again." "And now," said Florence, speaking with a calmness that was almost unnatural, "tell me all the truth."
All the truth! What a demand it was. And yet Cecilia had expected that none less would be made upon her. Of course Florence must have known that there was something wrong. Of course she would ask as to her lover immediately upon her arrival. "And now tell me all the truth."
"The truth, then, is very bad?" said Florence, gently. "Tell me first of all whether you have seen him. Is he ill?"
"He was with us on Friday. He is not ill."
"Thank God for that. Has anything happened to him? Has he lost money?"
"No; I have heard nothing about money."
"Then he is tired of me. Tell me at once, my own one. You know me so well. I can bear it. Don't treat me like a coward."
"No; it is not that. It is not that he is tired of you. If you had heard him speak of you on Friday--that you were the noblest, purest, dearest, best of women--" This was imprudent on her part; but what loving woman could have endured to be prudent?
"Then what is it?" asked Florence, almost sternly. "Look here, Cecilia; if it be anything touching himself or his own character, I will put up with it, in spite of anything my brother may say. Though he had been a murderer, if that were possible, I would not leave him. I never will, unless he leaves me. Where is he?"
"He is in town." Mrs. Burton had not received Harry's note, telling her of his journey to Clavering, before she had left home. Now, at this moment, it was waiting for her in Onslow Crescent.
"And am I to see him? Cecilia why cannot you tell me how it is? In such a case I should tell you--should tell you everything at once; because I know that you are not a coward. Why cannot you do so to me?"
"You have heard of Lady Ongar?"
"Heard of her; yes. She treated Harry very badly before her marriage."
"She has come back to London, a widow."
"I know she has. And Harry has gone back to her! Is that it? Do you mean to tell me that Harry and she are to be married?"
"No; I cannot say that. I hope it is not so. Indeed, I do not think it."
"Then what have I to fear? Does she object to his marrying me? What has she to do between us?"
"She wishes that Harry should come back to her, and Harry has been unsteady. He has been with her often, and he has been very weak. It may be all right yet, Flo; it may indeed--if you can forgive his weakness."
Something of the truth had now come home to Florence, and she sat thinking of it long before she spoke again. This widow, she knew, was very wealthy, and Harry had loved her before he had come to Stratton. Harry's first love had come back free--free to wed again, and able to make the fortune of the man she might love and marry. What had Florence to give to any man that could be weighed with this? Lady Ongar was very rich. Florence had already heard all this from Harry--was very rich, was clever, and was beautiful; and moreover, she had been Harry's first love. Was it reasonable that she, with her little claims, her puny attractions, should stand in Harry's way when such a prize as that came across him! And as for his weakness; might it not be strength, rather than weakness; the strength of an old love which he could not quell, now that the woman was free to take him? For herself--had she not known that she had only come second? As she thought of him with his noble bride and that bride's great fortune, and of her own insignificance, her low birth, her doubtful prettiness--prettiness that had ever been doubtful to herself of her few advantages, she told herself that she had no right to stand upon her claims. "I wish I had known it sooner," she said, in a voice so soft that Cecilia strained her ears to catch the words. "I wish I had known it sooner. I would not have come up to be in his way."
"But you will be in no one's way, Flo, unless it be in hers."
"And I will not be in hers," said Florence, speaking somewhat louder, and raising her head in pride as she spoke. "I will be neither in hers nor in his. I think I will go back at once."
Cecilia upon this ventured to look around at her, and saw that she was very pale, but that her eyes were dry and her lips pressed close together. It had not occurred to Mrs. Burton that her sister-in-law would take it in this way, that she would be willing to give way, and at once surrender her lover to her rival. No one liked success better than Cecilia Burton, and to her success would consist in rescuing Harry from Lady Ongar and securing him for Florence. In fighting this battle she had found that she would have against her Lady Ongar, of course, and then her husband, and Harry himself too, as she feared; and now she must reckon Florence also among her opponents. But she could not endure the idea of failing in such a cause. "Oh, Florence, I think you are so wrong," she said.
"You would feel as I do, if you were in my place."
"But people cannot always judge best when they feel the most. What you should think of is his happiness."
"So I do; and of his future career."
"Career! I hate to hear of careers. Men do not want careers, or should not want them. Could it be good for-him to marry a woman who has done as she has, simply because she has made herself rich by her wickedness? Do you believe so much in riches yourself?"
"If he loves her best, I will not blame him," said Florence. "He knew her before he had seen me. He was quite honest and told me all the story. It is not his fault if he still likes her the best."
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