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   Chapter 43 AFTERNOON VISITORS

Tom Brown at Oxford By Thomas Hughes Characters: 24548

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:05


Miss Mary Porter was sitting alone in the front drawing-room of her father's house, in Belgravia, on the afternoon of a summer's day in this same year. Two years and more have passed over her head since we first met her, and she may be a thought more sedate and better dressed, but there is no other change to be noticed in her.

The room was for the most part much like other rooms in that quarter of the world. There were few luxuries in the way of furniture which fallen man can desire which were not to be found there, but over and above this, there was an elegance in the arrangement of all the nick-nacks and ornaments, and an appropriateness and good taste in the placing of every piece of furniture and vase of flowers, which showed that a higher order of mind than the upholsterer's or housemaid's was constantly overlooking and working there. Everything seemed to be in its exact place, in the best place which could have been thought of for it, and to be the best thing which could have been thought of for the place. And yet this perfection did not strike you particularly at first, or surprise you in any way, but sank into you gradually, so that, until you forced yourself to consider the matter, you could not in the least say why the room had such a very pleasant effect on you.

The young lady to whom this charm was chiefly owing was sitting by a buhl work-table, on which lay her embroidery and a book. She was reading a letter, which seemed deeply to interest her; for she did not hear the voice of the butler, who had just opened the door and disturbed her solitude, until he had repeated for the second time, "Mr. Smith." Then Mary jumped up, and, hastily folding her letter, put it into her pocket. She was rather provoked at having allowed herself to be caught there alone by afternoon visitors, and with the servants for having let anyone in; nevertheless, she welcomed Mr. Smith with a cordiality of manner which perhaps rather more than represented her real feelings, and, with a "let mamma know," to the butler, set to work to entertain her visitor. She would have had no difficulty in doing this under ordinary circumstances, as all that Mr. Smith wanted was a good listener. He was a somewhat heavy and garrulous old gentleman, with many imaginary, and a few real troubles, the constant contemplation of which served to occupy the whole of his own time, and as much of his friends' as he could get them to give him. But scarcely had he settled himself comfortably in an easy chair opposite to his victim, when the butler entered again, and announced, "Mr. St. Cloud."

Mary was now no longer at her ease. Her manner of receiving her new visitor was constrained; and yet it was clear that he was on easy terms in the house. She asked the butler where his mistress was, and heard with vexation that she had gone out, but was expected home almost immediately. Charging him to let her mother know the moment she returned, Mary turned to her unwelcome task, and sat herself down again with such resignation as she was capable of at the moment. The conduct of her visitors was by no means calculated to restore her composure, or make her comfortable between them. She was sure that they knew one another; but neither of then would speak to the other. There the two sat on, each resolutely bent on tiring the other out; the elder crooning on to her in an undertone, and ignoring the younger, who in his turn put on an air of serene unconsciousness of the presence of his senior, and gazed about the room, and watched Mary, making occasional remarks to her as if no one else were present. On and on they sat, her only comfort being the hope that neither of them would have the conscience to stay on after the departure of the other.

Between them Mary was driven to her wits' end, and looked for her mother or for some new visitor to come to her help, as Wellington looked for the Prussians on the afternoon of June 18th. At length youth and insolence prevailed, and Mr. Smith rose to go. Mary got up too, and after his departure remained standing, in hopes that her other visitor would take the hint and follow the good example. But St. Cloud had not the least intention of moving.

"Really, your good-nature is quite astonishing, Miss Porter," he said, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, and following the pattern of one of the flowers on the carpet with his cane, which gave him the opportunity of showing his delicately gloved hand to advantage.

"Indeed, why do you think so?" she asked, taking up her embroidery and pretending to begin working.

"Have I not good reason, after sitting this half-hour and seeing you enduring old Smith-the greatest bore in London? I don't believe there are three houses where the servants dare let him in. It would be as much as their places are worth. No porter could hope for a character who let him in twice in the season."

"Poor Mr. Smith," said Mary, smiling. "But you know we have no porter, and," she suddenly checked herself, and added gravely, "he is an old friend, and papa and mamma like him."

"But the wearisomeness of his grievances! Those three sons in the Plungers, and their eternal scrapes! How you could manage to keep a civil face! It was a masterpiece of polite patience."

"Indeed, I am very sorry for his troubles. I wonder where mamma can be? We are going to drive. Shall you be in the Park? I think it must be time for me to dress."

"I hope not. It is so seldom that I see you except in crowded rooms. Can you wonder that I should value such a chance as this?"

"Were you at the new opera last night?" asked Mary, carefully avoiding his eye, and sticking to her work, but scarcely able to conceal her nervousness and discomfort.

"Yes, I was there; but-"

"Oh, do tell me about it, then; I hear it was a great success."

"Another time. We can talk of the opera anywhere. Let me speak now of something else. You must have seen, Miss Porter,-"

"How can you think I will talk of anything till you have told me about the opera?" interrupted Mary rapidly and nervously. "Was Grisi very fine? The chief part was composed for her, was it not? and dear old Lablache-"

"I will tell you all about it presently, if you will let me, in five minutes' time-I only ask for five minutes-"

"Five minutes! Oh, no, not five seconds. I must hear about the new opera before I will listen to a word of anything else."

"Indeed, Miss Porter, you must pardon me for disobeying. But I may not have such a chance as this again for months."

With which prelude he drew his chair towards hers and Mary was just trying to make up her mind to jump up and run right out of the room, when the door opened, and the butler walked in with a card on a waiter. Mary had never felt so relieved in her life, and could have hugged the solemn old domestic when he said, presenting the card to her,

"The gentleman asked if Mrs. or you were in, Miss, and told me to bring it up, and find whether you would see him on particular business. He's waiting in the hall."

"Oh, yes, I know. Of course. Yes, say I will see him directly. I mean, ask him to come up now."

"Shall I show him into the library, Miss?"

"No, no; in here; do you understand?"

"Yes, Miss," replied the butter, with a deprecatory look at St. Cloud, as much as to say, "You see, I can't help it," in answer to his impatient telegraphic signals. St. Cloud had been very liberal to the Porters' servants.

Mary's confidence had all come back. Relief was at hand. She could trust herself to hold St. Cloud at bay now, as it could not be for more than a few minutes. When she turned to him the nervousness had quite gone out of her manner, and she spoke in her old tone again, as she laid her embroidery aside.

"How lucky that you should be here! Look; I think you must be acquainted," she said, holding out the card which the butler had given her to St. Cloud.

He took it mechanically, and looked at it, and then crushed it in his hand, and was going to speak. She prevented him.

"I was right, I'm sure. You do know him?"

"I didn't see the name," he said almost fiercely.

"The name on the card which I gave you just now?-Mr. Grey. He is curate in one of the poor Westminster districts. You must remember him, for he was of your college. He was at Oxford with you. I made his acquaintance at the Commemoration. He will be so glad to meet an old friend."

St. Cloud was too much provoked to answer; and the next moment the door opened, and the butler announced Mr. Grey.

Grey came into the room timidly, carrying his head a little down as usual, and glancing uncomfortably about in a manner which used to make Drysdale say that he always looked as though he had just been robbing a hen-roost. Mary went forward to meet him, holding out her hand cordially.

"I am so glad to see you," she said. "How kind of you to call when you are so busy! Mamma will be here directly. I think you must remember Mr. St. Cloud-Mr. Grey."

St. Cloud's patience was now quite gone. He drew himself up, making the slightest possible inclination towards Grey, and then, without taking any further notice of him, turned to Mary with a look which he meant to be full of pitying admiration for her, and contempt of her visitor; but, as she would not look at him, it was thrown away. So he made his bow and stalked out of the room, angrily debating with himself, as he went down the stairs, whether she could have understood him. He was so fully convinced of the sacrifice which a man in his position was making in paying serious attention to a girl with little fortune and no connexion, that he soon consoled himself in the belief that her embarrassment only arose from shyness, and that the moment he could explain himself she would be his obedient and grateful servant. Meantime Mary sat down opposite to the curate, and listened to him as he unfolded his errand awkwardly enough. An execution was threatened in the house of a poor struggling widow, whom Mrs. Porter had employed to do needlework occasionally, and who was behind with her rent through sickness. He was afraid that her things would be taken and sold in the morning, unless she could borrow two sovereigns. He had so many claims on him, that he could not lend her the money himself, and so had come out to see what he could do amongst those who knew her.

By the time Grey had arrived at the end of his story, Mary had made up her mind-not without a little struggle-to sacrifice the greater part of what was left of her quarter's allowance. After all, it would only be wearing cleaned gloves instead of new ones, and giving up her new riding-hat till next quarter. So she jumped up, and said gaily, "Is that all, Mr. Grey? I have the money, and I will lend it her with pleasure. I will fetch it directly."

She tripped off to her room, and soon came back with the money; and just then the butler came in with tea, and Mary asked Mr. Grey to take some. He looked tired, she said, and if he would wait a little time, he would see her mother, who would be sure to do something more for the poor woman.

Grey had risen to leave, and was standing, hat in hand, ready to go. He was in the habit of reckoning with himself strictly for every minute of his day, and was never quite satisfied with himself unless he was doing the most disagreeable thing which circumstances for the time being allowed him to do. But greater and stronger men than Grey, from Adam downwards, have yielded to the temptation before which he now succumbed. He looked out of the corners of his eyes; and there was something so fresh and bright in the picture of the dainty little tea-service and the young lady behind it, the tea which she was beginning to pour out smelt so refreshing, and her hand and figure looked so pretty in the operation, that, with a sigh of departing resolution, he gave in, put his hat on the floor, and sat down opposite to the tempter.

Grey took a cup of tea, and then another. He thought he had never tasted anything so good. The delicious rich cream, and the tempting plate of bread and butter were too much for him. He fairly gave way, and resigned himself to physical enjoyment, and sipped his tea, and looked over his cup at

Mary, sitting there bright and kind and ready to go on pouring out for him to any extent. It seemed to him as if an atmosphere of light and joy surrounded her, within the circle of which he was sitting and absorbing. Tea was the only stimulant that Grey ever took, and he had more need of it than usual, for he had given away the chop, which was his ordinary dinner, to a starving woman. He was faint with fasting and the bad air of the hovels in which he had been spending his morning. The elegance of the room, the smell of the flowers, the charm of companionship with a young woman of his own rank, and the contrast of the whole to his common way of life, carried him away, and hopes and thoughts began to creep into his head to which he had long been a stranger. Mary did her very best to make his visit pleasant to him. She had a great respect for the self-denying life which she knew he was leading; and the nervousness and shyness of his manners were of a kind, which, instead of infecting her, gave her confidence, and made her feel quite at her ease with him. She was so grateful to him for having delivered her out of her recent embarrassment, that she was more than usually kind in her manner.

She saw how he was enjoying himself; and thought what good it must do him to forget his usual occupations for a short time. So she talked positive gossip to him, risked his opinion on riding habits, and very soon was telling him the plot of a new novel which she had just been reading, with an animation and playfulness which would have warmed the heart of an anchorite. For a short quarter of an hour Grey resigned himself; but at the end of that time he became suddenly and painfully conscious of what he was doing, and stopped himself short in the middle of an altogether worldly compliment, which he detected himself in the act of paying to his too fascinating young hostess. He felt that retreat was his only chance, and so grasped his hat again, and rose with a deep sigh, and a sudden change of manner which alarmed Mary.

"I hope you are not ill, Mr. Grey?" she said, anxiously.

"No, not the least, thank you. But-but-in short, I must go to my work. I ought to apologize, indeed, for having stayed so long."

"Oh, you have not been here more than twenty minutes. Pray stay, and see mamma; she must be in directly."

"Thank you; you are very kind. I should like it very much, but indeed I cannot."

Mary felt that it would be no kindness to press it further, and so rose herself, and held out her hand. Grey took it, and it is not quite certain to this day whether he did not press it in that farewell shake more than was absolutely necessary. If he did, we may be quite sure that he administered exemplary punishment to himself afterwards for so doing. He would gladly have left now, but his over-sensitive conscience forbade it. He had forgotten his office, he thought, hitherto, but there was time yet not to be altogether false to it. So he looked grave and shy again, and said,

"You will not be offended with me, Miss Porter, if I speak to you as a clergyman?"

Mary was a little disconcerted, but answered almost immediately,-

"Oh, no. Pray say anything which you think you ought to say."

"I am afraid there must be a great temptation in living always in beautiful rooms like this, with no one but prosperous people. Do you not think so?"

"But one cannot help it. Surely, Mr. Grey, you do not think it can be wrong?"

"No, not wrong. But it must be very trying. It must be very necessary to do something to lessen the temptation of such a life."

"I do not understand you. What could one do?"

"Might you not take up some work which would not be pleasant, such as visiting the poor?"

"I should be very glad; but we do not know any poor people in

London."

"There are very miserable districts near here."

"Yes, and papa and mamma are very kind, I know, in helping whenever they can hear of a proper case. But it is so different from the country. There it is so easy and pleasant to go into the cottages where everyone knows you, and most of the people work for papa, and one is sure of being welcomed, and that nobody will be rude. But here I should be afraid. It would seem so impertinent to go to people's houses of whom one knows nothing. I should never know what to say."

"It is not easy or pleasant duty which is the best for us. Great cities could never be evangelized, Miss Porter, if all ladies thought as you do."

"I think, Mr. Grey," said Mary, rather nettled, "that everyone has not the gift of lecturing the poor, and setting them right; and, if they have not, they had better not try to do it. And as for the rest, there is plenty of the same kind of work to be done, I believe, amongst the people of one's own class."

"You are joking, Miss Porter."

"No, I am not joking at all. I believe that rich people are quite as unhappy as poor. Their troubles are not the same, of course, and are generally of their own making. But troubles of the mind are worse, surely, than troubles of the body?"

"Certainly; and it is the highest work of the ministry to deal with spiritual trials. But you will pardon me for saying that I cannot think this is the proper work for-for-"

"For me, you would say. We must be speaking of quite different things, I am sure. I only mean that I can listen to the troubles and grievances of anyone who likes to talk of them to me, and try to comfort them a little, and to make things look brighter, and to keep cheerful. It is not easy always even to do this."

"It is not, indeed. But would it not be easier if you could do as I suggest? Going out of one's own class, and trying to care for and help the poor, braces the mind more than anything else."

"You ought to know my cousin Katie," said Mary, glad to make a diversion; "that is just what she would say. Indeed, I think you must have seen her at Oxford; did you not?"

"I believe I had the honor of meeting her at the rooms of a friend. I think he said she was also a cousin of his."

"Mr. Brown, you mean? Yes; did you know him?"

"Oh, yes. You will think it strange, as we are so very unlike; but I knew him better than I knew almost any one."

"Poor Katie is very anxious about him. I hope you thought well of him. You do not think he is likely to go very wrong?"

"No, indeed. I could wish he were sounder on Church questions, but that may come. Do you know that he is in London?"

"I had heard so."

"He has been several times to my schools. He used to help me at

Oxford, and has a capital way with the boys."

At this moment the clock on the mantel-piece struck a quarter. The sound touched some chord in Grey which made him grasp his hat again, and prepare for another attempt to get away.

"I hope you will pardon-" He pulled himself up short, in the fear lest he were going again to be false (as he deemed it) to his calling, and stood the picture of nervous discomfort.

Mary came to his relief. "I am sorry you must go, Mr. Grey," she said; "I should have so liked to have talked to you more about Oxford. You will call again soon, I hope?"

At which last speech Grey, casting an imploring glance at her, muttered something which she could not catch, and fled from the room.

Mary stood looking dreamily out of the window for a few minutes, till the entrance of her mother roused her, and she turned to pour out a cup of tea for her.

"It is cold, mamma dear; do let me make some fresh."

"No, thank you, dear; this will do very well," said Mrs. Porter; and she took off her bonnet and sipped the cold tea. Mary watched her silently for a minute, and then, taking the letter she had been reading out of her pocket, said, "I have a letter from Katie, mamma."

Mrs. Porter took the letter and read it; and, as Mary still watched, she saw a puzzled look coming over her mother's face. Mrs. Porter finished the letter, and then looked stealthily at Mary, who on her side was now busily engaged in putting up the tea-things.

"It is very embarrassing," said Mrs. Porter.

"What, mamma?"

"Oh, of course, my dear, I mean Katie's telling us of her cousin's being in London, and sending us his address-" and then she paused.

"Why, mamma?"

"Your papa will have to make up his mind whether he will ask him to the house. Katie would surely never have told him that she has written."

"Mr. and Mrs. Brown were so very kind. It would seem so strange, so ungrateful, not to ask him."

"I am afraid he is not the sort of young man-in short, I must speak to your papa."

Mrs. Porter looked hard at her daughter, who was still busied with the tea-things. She had risen, bonnet in hand, to leave the room; but now changed her mind, and, crossing to her daughter, put her arm round her neck. Mary looked up steadily into her eyes, then blushed slightly, and said quietly,

"No, mamma; indeed, it is not as you think."

Her mother stooped and kissed her, and left the room, telling her to get dressed, as the carriage would be round in a few minutes.

Her trials for the day were not over. She could see by their manner at dinner that her father and mother had been talking about her. Her father took her to a ball in the evening, where they met St. Cloud, who fastened himself to them. She was dancing a quadrille, and her father stood near her, talking confidentially to St. Cloud. In the intervals of the dance, scraps of their conversation reached her.

"You knew him, then, at Oxford?"

"Yes, very slightly."

"I should like to ask you now, as a friend-" Here Mary's partner reminded her that she ought to be dancing. When she had returned to her place again she heard-

"You think, then, that it was a bad business?"

"It was notorious in the college. We never had any doubt on the subject."

"My niece has told Mrs. Porter that there really was nothing wrong in it."

"Indeed? I am happy to hear it."

"I should like to think well of him, as he is a connexion of my wife. In other respects now-"

Here again she was carried away by the dance. When she returned, she caught the end of a sentence of St. Cloud's, "You will consider what I have said in confidence?"

"Certainly," answered Mr. Porter; "and I am exceedingly obliged to you." And then the dance was over, and Mary returned to her father's side. She had never enjoyed a ball less than this, and persuaded her father to leave early, which he was delighted to do.

When she reached her own room, Mary took off her wreath and ornaments, and then sat down and fell into a brown study, which lasted for some time. At last she roused herself with a sigh, and thought she had never had so tiring a day, though she could hardly tell why, and felt half inclined to have a good cry, if she could only have made up her mind what about. However, being a sensible young woman, she resisted the temptation, and hardly taking the trouble to roll up her hair, went to bed and slept soundly.

Mr. Porter found his wife sitting up for him; they were evidently both full of the same subject.

"Well, dear?" she said, as he entered the room.

Mr. Porter put down his candle, and shook his head.

"You don't think Katie can be right then? She must have capital opportunities of judging, you know, dear."

"But she is no judge. What can a girl like Katie know about such things?"

"Well, dear, do you know I really cannot think there was anything very wrong, though I did think so at first, I own."

"But I find that his character was bad-decidedly bad-always. Young St. Cloud didn't like to say much to me, which was natural, of course. Young men never like to betray one another; but I could see what he thought. He is a right-minded young man and very agreeable."

"I do not take to him very much."

"His connexions and prospects, too, are capital. I sometimes think he has a fancy for Mary. Haven't you remarked it?"

"Yes, dear. But as to the other matter? Shall you ask him here?"

"Well, dear, I do not think there is any need. He is only in town, I suppose, for a short time, and it is not at all likely that we should know where he is, you see."

"But if he should call?"

"Of course then we must be civil. We can consider then what is to be done."

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