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THE DELIVERY OF THE LAMB
It is hoped that a certain quarter of lamb will not have been forgotten-- a quarter of lamb that was sent as a peace-offering from Exeter to Nuncombe Putney by the hands of Miss Stanbury's Martha, not with purposes of corruption, not intended to buy back the allegiance of Dorothy, folded delicately and temptingly in one of the best table napkins, with no idea of bribery, but sent as presents used to be sent of old in the trains of great ambassadors as signs of friendship and marks of true respect. Miss Stanbury was, no doubt, most anxious that her niece should return to her, but was not, herself, low spirited enough to conceive that a quarter of lamb could be efficacious in procuring such return. If it might be that Dorothy's heart could be touched by mention of the weariness of her aunt's solitary life; and if, therefore, she would return, it would be very well; but it could not be well unless the offer should come from Dorothy herself. All of which Martha had been made to understand by her mistress, considerable ingenuity having been exercised in the matter on each side.
On her arrival at Lessboro', Martha had hired a fly, and been driven out to Nuncombe Putney; but she felt, she knew not why, a dislike to be taken in her carriage to the door of the cottage; and was put down in the middle of the village, from whence she walked out to Mrs Stanbury's abode, with the basket upon her arm. It was a good half mile, and the lamb was heavy, for Miss Stanbury had suggested that a bottle of sherry should be put in under the napkin and Martha was becoming tired of her burden, when whom should she see on the road before her but Brooke Burgess! As she said herself afterwards, it immediately occurred to her, 'that all the fat was in the fire.' Here had this young man come down, passing through Exeter without even a visit to Miss Stanbury, and had clandestinely sought out the young woman whom he wasn't to marry; and here was the young woman herself flying in her aunt's face, when one scratch of a pen might ruin them both! Martha entertained a sacred, awful, overcoming feeling about her mistress's will. That she was to have something herself she supposed, and her anxiety was not on that score; but she had heard so much about it, had realised so fully the great power which Miss Stanbury possessed, and had had her own feelings so rudely invaded by alterations in Miss Stanbury's plans, that she had come to entertain an idea that all persons around her should continually bear that will in their memory. Hugh had undoubtedly been her favourite, and, could Martha have dictated the will herself, she would still have made Hugh the heir; but she had realised the resolution of her mistress so far as to confess that the bulk of the property was to go back to a Burgess. But there were very many Burgesses; and here was the one who had been selected, flying in the very face of the testatrix! What was to be done? Were she to go back and not tell her mistress that she had seen Brooke Burgess at Nuncombe, then, should the fact be found out, would the devoted anger of Miss Stanbury fall upon her own head? It would be absolutely necessary that she should tell the story, let the consequences be what they might; but the consequences, probably, would be very dreadful. 'Mr Brooke, that is not you?' she said, as she came up to him, putting her basket down in the middle of the dusty road.
'Then who can it be?' said Brooke, giving her his hand to shake.
'But what do bring you here, Mr Brooke? Goodness me, what will missus say?'
'I shall make that all straight. I'm going back to Exeter tomorrow.' Then there were many questions and many answers. He was sojourning at Mrs Crocket's, and had been there for the last two days. 'Dear, dear, dear,' she said over and over again. 'Deary me, deary me!' and then she asked him whether it was 'all along of Miss Dorothy' that he had come. Of course, it was all along of Miss Dorothy. Brooke made no secret about it. He had come down to see Dorothy's mother and sister, and to say a bit of his own mind about future affairs and to see the beauties of the country. When he talked about the beauties of the country, Martha looked at him as the people of Lessboro' and Nuncombe Putney should have looked at Colonel Osborne, when he talked of the church porch at Cockchaffington. 'Beauties of the countries, Mr Brooke you ought to be ashamed of yourself!' said Martha.
'But I ain't the least in the world,' said Brooke.
Then Martha took up her basket, and went on to the cottage, which had been close in sight during their conversation in the road. She felt angry with Dorothy. In such matters a woman is always angry with the woman who has probably been quite passive, and rarely with the man, who is ever the real transgressor. Having a man down after her at Nuncombe Putney! It had never struck Martha as very horrible that Brooke Burgess should fall in love with Dorothy in the city, but this meeting, in the remoteness of the country, out of sight even of the village, was almost indecent; and all, too, with Miss Stanbury's will just, as one might say, on the balance! Dorothy ought to have buried herself rather than have allowed Brooke to see her at Nuncombe Putney; and Dorothy's mother and Priscilla must be worse. She trudged on, however, with her lamb, and soon found herself in the presence of the three ladies.
'What Martha!' said Dorothy.
'Yes, miss here I am. I'd have been here half-an-hour ago amost, if I hadn't been stopped on the road.'
'And who stopped you?' asked Priscilla.
'Why Mr Brooke, of course.'
'And what did Mr Brooke say to you?' asked Dorothy.
Martha perceived at once that Dorothy was quite radiant. She told her mistress that she had never seen Miss Dorothy look half so comely before. 'Laws, ma'am, she brightened up and speckled about, till it did your heart good to see her in spite of all.' But this was some time afterwards.
'He didn't say very much,' replied Martha, gravely. 'But I've got very much to tell you,' continued Dorothy. 'I'm engaged to be married to Mr Brooke, and you must congratulate me. It is settled now, and mamma and my sister know all about it.'
Martha, when she was thus asked directly for congratulation, hardly knew at once how to express herself. Being fully aware of Miss Stanbury's objection to the marriage, she could not venture to express her approbation of it. It was very improper, in Martha's mind, that any young woman should have a follower, when the 'missus' didn't approve of it. She understood well enough that, in that matter of followers, privileges are allowed to young ladies which are not accorded to maid servants. A young lady may do things, have young men to walk and talk with them, to dance with them and embrace them, and perhaps even more than this, when for half so much a young woman would be turned into the streets without a character. Martha knew all this, and knew also that Miss Dorothy, though her mother lived in a very little cottage, was not altogether debarred, in the matter of followers, from the privileges of a lady. But yet Miss Dorothy's position was so very peculiar!
Look at that will or, rather, at that embryo will, which might be made any day, which now probably would be made, and which might affect them both so terribly! People who have not got money should not fly in the face of those who have. Such at least was Martha's opinion very strongly. How could she congratulate Miss Dorothy under the existing circumstances. 'I do hope you will be happy, miss, that you knows,' said Martha, in her difficulty. 'And now, ma'am, miss, I mean,' she added, correcting herself, in obedience to Miss Stanbury's direct orders about the present 'missus has just sent me over with a bit of lamb, and a letter as is here in the basket, and to ask how you is and the other ladies.'
'We are very much obliged,' said Mrs Stanbury, who had not understood the point of Martha's speech.
'My sister is, I'm sure,' said Priscilla, who had understood it.
Dorothy had taken the letter, and had gone aside with it, and was reading it very carefully. It touched her nearly, and there had come tears into both her eyes, as she dwelt upon it. There was something in her aunt's allusion to the condition of unmarried women which came home to her especially. She knew her aunt's past history, and now she knew, or hoped that she knew, something of her own future destiny. Her aunt was desolate, whereas upon her the world smiled, most benignly. Brooke had just informed her that he intended to make her his wife as speedily as possible, with her aunt's consent if possible, but if not, then without it. He had ridiculed the idea of his being stopped by Miss Stanbury's threats, and had said all this in such fashion that even Priscilla herself had only listened and obeyed. He had spoken not a word of his own income, and none of them had dreamed even of asking him a question. He had been as a god in the little cottage, and all of them had been ready to fall down and worship him. Mrs Stanbury had not known how to treat him with sufficient deference, and, at the same time, with sufficient affection. He had kissed them all round, and Priscilla had felt an elation which was hardly intelligible to herself. Dorothy, who was so much honoured, had come to enjoy a status in her mother's estimation very different from that which she had previously possessed, and had grown to be quite beautiful in her mother's eyes.
There was once a family of three ancient maiden ladies, much respected and loved in the town in which they lived. Their manners of life were well known among their friends, and excited no surprise; but a stranger to the locality once asked of the elder why Miss Matilda, the younger, always went first out of the room? 'Matilda once had an offer of marriage,' said the dear simple old lady, who had never been so graced, and who felt that such an episode in life was quite sufficient to bestow brevet rank. It was believed by Mrs Stanbury that Dorothy's honours would be carried further than those of Miss Matilda, but there was much of the same feeling in the bosom of the mother towards the fortunate daughter, who, in the eyes of a man, had seemed goodly enough to be his wife.
With this swelling happiness round her heart, Dorothy read her aunt's letter, and was infinitely softened. 'I had gotten somehow to love to see your pretty face.' Dorothy had thought little enough of her own beauty, but she liked being told by her aunt that her face had been found to be pretty. 'I am very desolate and solitary here,' her aunt said; and then had come those words about the state of maiden women and then those other words, about women's duties, and her aunt's prayer on her behalf. 'Dear Dorothy, be not such a one.' She held the letter to her lips and to her bosom, and could hardly continue its perusal because of her tears. Such prayers from the aged addressed to the young are generally held in light esteem, but this adjuration was valued by the girl to whom it was addressed. She put together the invitation or rather the permission accorded to her, to make a visit to Exeter and the intimation in the postscript that Martha knew her mistress's mind; and then she returned to the sitting-room, in which Martha was still seated with her mother, and took the old servant apart. 'Martha,' she said, 'is my aunt happy now?'
'She is strong again; is she not?'
'Sir Peter says she is getting well; and Mr Martin; but Mr Martin isn't much account.'
'She eats and drinks again?'
'Pretty well not as it used to be, you know, miss. I tell her she ought to go somewheres but she don't like moving nohow. She never did. I tell her if she'd go to Dawlish just for a week. But she don't think there's a bed fit to sleep on, nowhere, except just her own.'
'She would go if Sir Peter told her.'
'She says that these movings are newfangled fashions, and that the air didn't use to want changing for folk when she was young. I heard her tell Sir Peter herself, that if she couldn't live at Exeter, she would die there. She won't go nowheres, Miss Dorothy. She ain't careful to live.'
'Tell me something, Martha; will you?'
'What is it, Miss Dorothy?'
'Be a dear good woman now, and tell me true. Would she be better if I were with her?'
'She don't like being alone, miss. I don't know nobody as does.'
'But now, about Mr Brooke, you know.'
'Yes; Mr Brooke! That's it.'
'Of course, Martha, I love him better than anything in all the world. I can't tell you how it was, but I think I loved him the very first moment I saw him.'
'Dear, dear, dear!'
'I couldn't help it, Martha but it's no good talking about it, for of course I shan't try to help it now. Only this, that I would do anything in the world for my aunt except that.'
'But she don't like it, Miss Dorothy. That is the truth, you know.'
'It can't be helped now, Martha; and of course she'll be told at once. Shall I go and tell her? I'd go today if you think she would like it.'
'And Mr Brooke?'
'He is to go tomorrow.'
'And will you leave him here?'
'Why not? Nobody will hurt him. I don't mind a bit about having him with me now. But I can tell you this. When he went away from us once, it made me very unhappy. Would Aunt Stanbury be glad to see me, Martha?'
Martha's reserve was at last broken down, and she expressed herself in strong language. There was nothing on earth her mistress wanted so much as to have her favourite niece back again. Martha acknowledged that there were great difficulties about Brooke Burgess, and she did not see her way clearly through them. Dorothy declared her purpose of telling her aunt boldly at once. Martha shook her head, admiring the honesty and courage, but doubting the result. She understood better than did any one else the peculiarity of mind which made her mistress specially anxious that none of the Stanbury family should enjoy any portion of the Burgess money, beyond that which she herself had saved out of the income. There had been moments in which Martha had hoped that this prejudice might be overcome in favour of Hugh; but it had become stronger as the old woman grew to be older and more feeble, and it was believed now to be settled as Fate. 'She'd sooner give it all to old Barty over the way,' Martha had once said, 'than let it go to her own kith and kin. And if she do hate any human creature, she do hate Barty Burgess.' She assented, however, to Dorothy's proposal; and, though Mrs Stanbury and Priscilla were astounded by the precipitancy of the measure, they did not attempt to oppose it.
'And what am I to do?' said Brooke, when he was told.
'You'll come tomorrow, of course,' said Dorothy.
'But it may be that the two of us together will be too many for the dear old lunatic.'
'You shan't call her a lunatic, Brooke. She isn't so much a lunatic as you are, to run counter to her, and disobey her, and all that kind of thing.'
'And how about yourself?'
'How can I help it, Brooke? It is you that say it must be so.'
'Of course it must. Who is to be stayed from doing what is reasonable because an old woman has a bee on her bonnet. I don't believe in people's wills.'
'She can do what she likes about it, Brooke.'
'Of course she can, and of course she will. What I mean is that it never pays to do this or that because somebody may alter his will, or may make a will, or may not make a will. You become a slave for life, and then your dead tyrant leaves you a mourning-ring, and grins at you out of his grave. All the same she'll kick up a row, I fancy, and you'll have to bear the worst of it.'
'I'll tell her the truth; and if she be very angry, I'll just come home again. But I think I'll come home tomorrow any way, so that I'll pass you on the road. That will be best. She won't want us both together. Only then, Brooke, I shan't see you again.'
'Not till June.'
'And is it to be really in June?'
'You say you don't like May.'
'You are such a goose, Brooke. It will be May almost tomorrow. I shall be such a poor wife for you, Brooke. As for getting my things ready, I shall not bring hardly any things at all. Have you thought what it is to take a body so very poor?'
'I own I haven't thought as much about it, Dolly, as I ought to have done, perhaps.'
'It is too late now, Brooke.'
'I suppose it is.'
'Quite too late. A week ago I could have borne it. I had almost got myself to think that it would be better that I should bear it. But you have come, and banished all the virtue out of my head. I am ashamed of myself, because I am so unworthy; but I would put up with that shame rather than lose you now. Brooke, Brooke, I will so try to be good to you!'
In the afternoon Martha and Dorothy started together for Exeter, Brooke and Priscilla accompanying them as far as Mrs Crocket's, where the Lessboro' fly was awaiting them. Dorothy said little or nothing during the walk, nor, indeed, was she very communicative during the journey into Exeter. She was going to her aunt, instigated simply by the affection of her full heart; but she was going with a tale in her mouth which she knew would be very unwelcome. She could not save herself from feeling that, in having accepted Brooke, and in having not only accepted him but even fixed the day for her marriage, she had been ungrateful to her aunt. Had it not been for her aunt's kindness and hospitality, she would never have seen Brooke Burgess. And as she had been under her aunt's care at Exeter, she doubted whether she had not been guilty of some great fault in falling in love with this man, in opposition as it were to express orders. Should her aunt still declare that she would in no way countenance the marriage, that she would still oppose it and use her influence with Brooke to break it off, then would Dorothy return on the morrow to her mother's cottage at Nuncombe Putney, so that her lover might be free to act with her aunt as he might think fit. And should he yield, she would endeavour, she would struggle hard, to think that he was still acting for the best. 'I must tell her myself, Martha,' said Dorothy, as they came near to Exeter.
'Certainly, miss, only you'll do it tonight.'
'Yes at once. As soon after I get there as possible.'
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