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XXXI

Swithin's midnight excursion to the tower in the cause of science
led him to oversleep himself, and when the brother and sister met at
breakfast in the morning he did not appear.

'Don't disturb him,--don't disturb him,' said Louis laconically.
'Hullo, Viviette, what are you reading there that makes you flame up
so?'

She was glancing over a letter that she had just opened, and at his
words looked up with misgiving.

The incident of the previous night left her in great doubt as to
what her bearing towards him ought to be. She had made no show of
resenting his conduct at the time, from a momentary supposition that
he must know all her secret; and afterwards, finding that he did not
know it, it seemed too late to affect indignation at his suspicions.
So she preserved a quiet neutrality. Even had she resolved on an
artificial part she might have forgotten to play it at this instant,
the letter being of a kind to banish previous considerations.

'It is a letter from Bishop Helmsdale,' she faltered.

'Well done! I hope for your sake it is an offer.'

'That's just what it is.'

'No,--surely?' said Louis, beginning a laugh of surprise.

'Yes,' she returned indifferently. 'You can read it, if you like.'

'I don't wish to pry into a communication of that sort.'

'Oh, you may read it,' she said, tossing the letter across to him.

Louis thereupon read as under:--


'THE PALACE, MELCHESTER,
June 28, 18--.

'MY DEAR LADY CONSTANTINE,--During the two or three weeks that have
elapsed since I experienced the great pleasure of renewing my
acquaintance with you, the varied agitation of my feelings has
clearly proved that my only course is to address you by letter, and
at once. Whether the subject of my communication be acceptable to
you or not, I can at least assure you that to suppress it would be
far less natural, and upon the whole less advisable, than to speak
out frankly, even if afterwards I hold my peace for ever.

'The great change in my experience during the past year or two--the
change, that is, which has resulted from my advancement to a
bishopric--has frequently suggested to me, of late, that a
discontinuance in my domestic life of the solitude of past years was
a question which ought to be seriously contemplated. But whether I
should ever have contemplated it without the great good fortune of
my meeting with you is doubtful. However, the thing has been
considered at last, and without more ado I candidly ask if you would
be willing to give up your life at Welland, and relieve my household
loneliness here by becoming my wife.

'I am far from desiring to force a hurried decision on your part,
and will wait your good pleasure patiently, should you feel any
uncertainty at the moment as to the step. I am quite disqualified,
by habits and experience, for the delightful procedure of urging my
suit in the ardent terms which would be so appropriate towards such
a lady, and so expressive of my inmost feeling. In truth, a prosy
cleric of five-and-forty wants encouragement to make him eloquent.
Of this, however, I can assure you: that if admiration, esteem, and
devotion can compensate in any way for the lack of those qualities
which might be found to burn with more outward brightness in a
younger man, those it is in my power to bestow for the term of my
earthly life. Your steady adherence to church principles and your
interest in ecclesiastical polity (as was shown by your bright
questioning on those subjects during our morning walk round your
grounds) have indicated strongly to me the grace and appropriateness
with which you would fill the position of a bishop's wife, and how
greatly you would add to his reputation, should you be disposed to
honour him with your hand. Formerly there have been times when I
was of opinion--and you will rightly appreciate my candour in owning
it--that a wife was an impediment to a bishop's due activities; but
constant observation has convinced me that, far from this being the
truth, a meet consort infuses life into episcopal influence and
teaching.

'Should you reply in the affirmative I will at once come to see you,
and with your permission will, among other things, show you a few
plain, practical rules which I have interested myself in drawing up
for our future guidance. Should you refuse to change your condition
on my account, your decision will, as I need hardly say, be a great
blow to me. In any event, I could not do less than I have done,
after giving the subject my full consideration. Even if there be a
slight deficiency of warmth on your part, my earnest hope is that a
mind comprehensive as yours will perceive the immense power for good
that you might exercise in the position in which a union with me
would place you, and allow that perception to weigh in determining
your answer.

'I remain, my dear Lady Constantine, with the highest respect and
affection,--Yours always,
'C. MELCHESTER.'


'Well, you will not have the foolhardiness to decline, now that the
question has actually been popped, I should hope,' said Louis, when
he had done reading.

'Certainly I shall,' she replied.

'You will really be such a flat, Viviette?'

'You speak without much compliment. I have not the least idea of
accepting him.'

'Surely you will not let your infatuation for that young fellow
carry you so far, after my acquainting you with the shady side of
his character? You call yourself a religious woman, say your
prayers out loud, follow up the revived methods in church practice,
and what not; and yet you can think with partiality of a person who,
far from having any religion in him, breaks the most elementary
commandments in the decalogue.'

'I cannot agree with you,' she said, turning her face askance, for
she knew not how much of her brother's language was sincere, and how
much assumed, the extent of his discoveries with regard to her
secret ties being a mystery. At moments she was disposed to declare
the whole truth, and have done with it. But she hesitated, and left
the words unsaid; and Louis continued his breakfast in silence.

When he had finished, and she had eaten little or nothing, he asked
once more, 'How do you intend to answer that letter? Here you are,
the poorest woman in the county, abandoned by people who used to be
glad to know you, and leading a life as dismal and dreary as a
nun's, when an opportunity is offered you of leaping at once into a
leading position in this part of England. Bishops are given to
hospitality; you would be welcomed everywhere. In short, your
answer must be yes.'

'And yet it will be no,' she said, in a low voice. She had at
length learnt, from the tone of her brother's latter remarks, that
at any rate he had no knowledge of her actual marriage, whatever
indirect ties he might suspect her guilty of.

Louis could restrain himself no longer at her answer. 'Then conduct
your affairs your own way. I know you to be leading a life that
won't bear investigation, and I'm hanged if I'll stay here any
longer!'

Saying which, Glanville jerked back his chair, and strode out of the
room. In less than a quarter of an hour, and before she had moved a
step from the table, she heard him leaving the house.





Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy
Category:
General Fiction
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