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Mr Crump arrived at Exeter. Camilla was not told of his coming till the morning of the day on which he arrived; and then the tidings were communicated, because it was necessary that a change should be made in the bed-rooms. She and her sister had separate rooms when there was no visitor with them, but now Mr Crump must be accommodated. There was a long consultation between Bella and Mrs French, but at last it was decided that Bella should sleep with her mother. There would still be too much of the lioness about Camilla to allow of her being regarded as a safe companion through the watches of the night. 'Why is Uncle Jonas coming now?' she asked.
'I thought it better to ask him,' said Mrs French.
After a long pause, Camilla asked another question. 'Does Uncle Jonas mean to see Mr Gibson?'
'I suppose he will,' said Mrs French.
'Then he will see a low, mean fellow: the lowest, meanest fellow that ever was heard of! But that won't make much difference to Uncle Jonas. I wouldn't have him now, if he was to ask me ever so, that I wouldn't!'
Mr Crump came, and kissed his sister and two nieces. The embrace with Camilla was not very affectionate.'so your Joe has been and jilted you?' said Uncle Jonas 'it's like one of them clergymen. They say so many prayers, they think they may do almost anything afterwards. Another man would have had his head punched.'
'The less talk there is about it the better,' said Camilla. On the following day Mr Crump called by appointment on Mr Gibson, and remained closeted with that gentleman for the greater portion of the morning. Camilla knew well that he was going, and went about the house like a perturbed spirit during his absence. There was a look about her that made them all doubt whether she was not, in truth, losing her mind. Her mother more than once went to the pantry to see that the knives were right; and, as regarded that sharp-pointed weapon, was careful to lock it up carefully out of her daughter's way. Mr Crump had declared himself willing to take Camilla back to Gloucester, and had laughed at the obstacles which his niece might, perhaps, throw in the way of such an arrangement. 'She mustn't have much luggage, that is all,' said Mr Crump. For Mr Crump had been made aware of the circumstances of the trousseau. About three o'clock Mr Crump came back from Mr Gibson's, and expressed a desire to be left alone with Camilla. Mrs French was prepared for everything; and Mr Crump soon found himself with his younger niece.
'Camilla, my dear,' said he, 'this has been a bad business.'
'I don't know what business you mean, Uncle Jonas.'
'Yes, you do, my dear, you know. And I hope it won't come too late to prove to you that young women shouldn't be too keen in setting their caps at the gentlemen. It's better for them to be hunted, than to hunt.'
'Uncle Jonas, I will not be insulted.'
'Stick to that, my dear, and you won't get into a scrape again. Now, look here. This man can never be made to marry you, anyhow.'
'I wouldn't touch him with a pair of tongs, if he were kneeling at my feet!'
'That's right; stick to that. Of course, you wouldn't now, after all that has come and gone. No girl with any spirit would.'
'He's a coward and a thief, and he'll be damned for what he has done, some of these days!'
'T-ch, t-ch, t-ch! That isn't a proper way for a young lady to talk. That's cursing and swearing.'
'It isn't cursing and swearing--it's what the Bible says.'
'Then we'll leave him to the Bible. In the meantime, Mr Gibson wants to marry some one else, and that can't hurt you.'
'He may marry whom he likes, but he shan't marry Bella, that's all!'
'It is Bella that he means to marry.'
'Then he won't. I'll forbid the banns. I'll write to the bishop. I'll go to the church and prevent its being done. I'll make such a noise in the town that it can't be done. It's no use your looking at me like that, Uncle Jonas. I've got my own feelings, and he shall never marry Bella. It's what they have been intending all through, and it shan't be done!'
'It will be done.'
'Uncle Jonas, I'll stab her to the heart, and him too, before I'll see it done! Though I were to be killed the next day, I would. Could you bear it?'
'I'm not a young woman. Now, I'll tell you what I want you to do.'
'I'll not do anything.'
'Just pack up your things, and start with me to Gloucester tomorrow.'
'Then you'll be carried, my dear. I'll write to your aunt, to say that you're coming; and we'll be as jolly as possible when we get you home.'
'I won't go to Gloucester, Uncle Jonas. I won't go away from Exeter. I won't let it be done. She shall never, never, never be that man's wife!'
Nevertheless, on the day but one after this, Camilla French did go to Gloucester. Before she went, however, things had to be done in that house which almost made Mrs French repent that she had sent for so stern an assistant. Camilla was at last told, in so many words, that the things which she had prepared for her own wedding must be given up for the wedding of her sister; and it seemed that this item in the list of her sorrows troubled her almost more than any other. She swore that whither she went there should go the dresses, and the handkerchiefs, and the hats, the bonnets, and the boots. 'Let her have them,' Bella had pleaded. But Mr Crump was inexorable. He had looked into his sister's affairs, and found that she was already in debt. To his practical mind, it was an absurdity that the unmarried sister should keep things that were wholly unnecessary, and that the sister that was to be married should be without things that were needed. There was a big trunk, of which Camilla had the key, but which, unfortunately for her, had been deposited in her mother's room. Upon this she sat, and swore that nothing should move her but a promise that her plunder should remain untouched. But there came this advantage from the terrible question of the wedding raiments, that in her energy to keep possession of them, she gradually abandoned her opposition to her sister's marriage. She had been driven from one point to another till she was compelled at last to stand solely upon her possessions. 'Perhaps we had better let her keep them,' said Mrs French. 'Trash and nonsense!' said Mr Crump. 'If she wants a new frock, let her have it; as for the sheets and tablecloths, you'd better keep them yourself. But Bella must have the rest.'
It was found on the eve of the day on which she was told that she was to depart that she had in truth armed herself with a dagger or clasp knife. She actually displayed it when her uncle told her to come away from the chest on which she was sitting. She declared that she would defend herself there to the last gasp of her life; but of course the knife fell from her hand the first moment that she was touched. 'I did think once that she was going to make a poke at me,' Mr Crump said afterwards; 'but she had screamed herself so weak that she couldn't do it.'
When the morning came, she was taken to the fly and driven to the station without any further serious outbreak. She had even condescended to select certain articles, leaving the rest of the hymeneal wealth behind her. Bella, early on that morning of departure, with great humility, implored her sister to forgive her; but no entreaties could induce Camilla to address one gracious word to the proposed bride. 'You've been cheating me all along!' she said; and that was the last word she spoke to poor Bella.
She went, and the field was once more open to the amorous Vicar of St. Peter's-cum-Pumpkin. It is astonishing how the greatest difficulties will sink away, and become as it were nothing, when they are encountered face to face. It is certain that Mr Gibson's position had been one most trying to the nerves. He had speculated on various modes of escape; a curacy in the north of England would be welcome, or the duties of a missionary in New Zealand, or death. To tell the truth, he had, during the last week or two, contemplated even a return to the dominion of Camilla. That there should ever again be things pleasant for him in Exeter seemed to be quite impossible. And yet, on the evening of the day but one after the departure of Camilla, he was seated almost comfortably with his own Arabella! There is nothing that a man may not do, nothing that he may not achieve, if he have only pluck enough to go through with it.
'You do love me?' Bella said to him. It was natural that she should ask him; but it would have been better perhaps if she had held her tongue. Had she spoken to him about his house, or his income, or the servants, or the duties of his parish church, it would have been easier for him to make a comfortable reply.
'Yes I love you,' he replied; 'of course I love you. We have always been friends, and I hope things will go straight now. I have had a great deal to go through, Bella, and so have you, but God will temper the wind to the shorn lambs.' How was the wind to be tempered for the poor lamb who had gone forth shorn down to the very skin!
Soon after this Mrs French returned to the room, and then there was no more romance. Mrs French had by no means forgiven Mr Gibson all the trouble he had brought into the family, and mixed a certain amount of acrimony with her entertainment of him. She dictated to him, treated him with but scant respect, and did not hesitate to let him understand that he was to be watched very closely till he was actually and absolutely married. The poor man had in truth no further idea of escape. He was aware that he had done that which made it necessary that he should bear a great deal, and that he had no right to resent suspicion. When a day was fixed in June on which he should be married at the church of Heavitree, and it was proposed that he should be married by banns, he had nothing to urge to the contrary. And when it was also suggested to him by one of the prebendaries of the Cathedral that it might be well for him to change his clerical duties for a period with the vicar of a remote parish in the north of Cornwall so as to be out of the way of remark from those whom he had scandalised by his conduct, he had no objection to make to that arrangement. When Mrs MacHugh met him in the Close, and told him that he was a gay Lothario, he shook his head with a melancholy self-abasement, and passed on without even a feeling of anger. 'When they smite me on the right cheek, I turn unto them my left,' he said to himself, when one of the cathedral vergers remarked to him that after all he was going to be married at last. Even Bella became dominant over him, and assumed with him occasionally the air of one who had been injured.
Bella wrote a touching letter to her sister, a letter that ought to have touched Camilla, begging for forgiveness, and for one word of sisterly love. Camilla answered the letter, but did not send a word of sisterly love. 'According to my way of thinking, you have been a nasty sly thing, and I don't believe you'll ever be happy. As for him, I'll never speak to him again.' That was nearly the whole of her letter. 'You must leave it to time,' said Mrs French wisely;'she'll come round some day.' And then Mrs French thought how bad it would be for her if the daughter who was to be her future companion did not 'come round' some day.
And so it was settled that they should be married in Heavitree Church, Mr Gibson and his first love, and things went on pretty much as though nothing had been done amiss. The gentleman from Cornwall came down to take Mr Gibson's place at St. Peter's-cum-Pumpkin, while his duties in the Cathedral were temporarily divided among the other priest-vicars -with some amount of grumbling on their part. Bella commenced her modest preparations without any of the eclat which had attended Camilla's operations, but she felt more certainty of ultimate success than had ever fallen to Camilla's lot. In spite of all that had come and gone, Bella never feared again that Mr Gibson would be untrue to her. In regard to him, it must be doubted whether Nemesis ever fell upon him with a hand sufficiently heavy to punish him for the great sins which he had manifestly committed. He had encountered a bad week or two, and there had been days in which, as has been said, he thought of Natal, of ecclesiastical censures, and even of annihilation; but no real punishment seemed to fall upon him. It may be doubted whether, when the whole arrangement was settled for him, and when he heard that Camilla had yielded to the decrees of Fate, he did not rather flatter himself on being a successful man of intrigue, whether he did not take some glory to himself for his good fortune with women, and pride himself amidst his self-reproaches for the devotion which had been displayed for him by the fair sex in general. It is quite possible that he taught himself to believe that at one time Dorothy Stanbury was devotedly in love with him, and that when he reckoned up his sins she was one of those in regard to whom he accounted himself to have been a sinner. The spirit of intrigue with women, as to which men will flatter themselves, is customarily so vile, so mean, so vapid a reflection of a feeling, so aimless, resultless, and utterly unworthy! Passion exists and has its sway. Vice has its votaries and there is, too, that worn-out longing for vice, 'prurient, yet passionless, cold-studied lewdness', which drags on a feeble continuance with the aid of money. But the commonest folly of man in regard to women is a weak taste for intrigue, with little or nothing on which to feed it a worse than feminine aptitude for male coquetry, which never ascends beyond a desire that somebody shall hint that there is something peculiar; and which is shocked and retreats backwards into its boots when anything like a consequence forces itself on the apprehension. Such men have their glory in their own estimation. We remember how Falstaff flouted the pride of his companion whose victory in the fields of love had been but little glorious. But there are victories going now-a-days so infinitely less glorious, that Falstaff's page was a Lothario, a very Don Juan, in comparison with the heroes whose praises are too often sung by their own lips. There is this recompense: that their defeats are always sung by lips louder than their own. Mr Gibson, when he found that he was to escape apparently unscathed, that people standing respectably before the world absolutely dared to whisper words to him of congratulation on this third attempt at marriage within little more than a year, took pride to himself, and bethought himself that he was a gay deceiver. He believed that he had selected his wife and that he had done so in circumstances of peculiar difficulty! Poor Mr Gibson--we hardly know whether most to pity him, or the unfortunate, poor woman who ultimately became Mrs Gibson.
'And so Bella French is to be the fortunate woman after all,' said Miss Stanbury to her niece.
'It does seem to me to be so odd,' said Dorothy. 'I wonder how he looked when he proposed it.'
'Like a fool, as he always does.'
Dorothy refrained from remarking that Miss Stanbury had not always thought that Mr Gibson looked like a fool, but the idea occurred to her mind. 'I hope they will be happy at last,' she said.
'Pshaw! Such people can't be happy, and can't be unhappy. I don't suppose it much matters which he marries, or whether he marries them both, or neither. They are to be married by banns, they say at Heavitree.'
'I don't see anything bad in that.'
'Only Camilla might step out and forbid them,' said Aunt Stanbury. 'I almost wish she would.'
'She has gone away, aunt, to an uncle who lives at Gloucester.'
'It was well to get her out of the way, no doubt. They'll be married before you now, Dolly.'
'That won't break my heart, aunt.'
'I don't suppose there'll be much of a wedding. They haven't anybody belonging to them, except that uncle at Gloucester.' Then there was a pause. 'I think it is a nice thing for friends to collect together at a wedding,' continued Aunt Stanbury.
'I think it is,' said Dorothy, in the mildest, softest voice.
'I suppose we must make room for that black sheep of a brother of yours, Dolly or else you won't be contented.'
'Dear, dear, dearest aunt!' said Dorothy, falling down on her knees at her aunt's feet.
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