The light in the passage was obscured for a moment, and my aunt came out. She was agitated, and told some money into his hand. I heard it chink.
'What's the use of this?' he demanded.
'I can spare no more,' returned my aunt.
'Then I can't go,' said he. 'Here! You may take it back!'
'You bad man,' returned my aunt, with great emotion; 'how can you use me so? But why do I ask? It is because you know how weak I am! What have I to do, to free myself for ever of your visits, but to abandon you to your deserts?'
'And why don't you abandon me to my deserts?' said he.
'You ask me why!' returned my aunt. 'What a heart you must have!'
He stood moodily rattling the money, and shaking his head, until at length he said:
'Is this all you mean to give me, then?'
'It is all I CAN give you,' said my aunt. 'You know I have had losses, and am poorer than I used to be. I have told you so. Having got it, why do you give me the pain of looking at you for another moment, and seeing what you have become?'
'I have become shabby enough, if you mean that,' he said. 'I lead the life of an owl.'
'You stripped me of the greater part of all I ever had,' said my aunt. 'You closed my heart against the whole world, years and years. You treated me falsely, ungratefully, and cruelly. Go, and repent of it. Don't add new injuries to the long, long list of injuries you have done me!'
'Aye!' he returned. 'It's all very fine — Well! I must do the best I can, for the present, I suppose.'
In spite of himself, he appeared abashed by my aunt's indignant tears, and came slouching out of the garden. Taking two or three quick steps, as if I had just come up, I met him at the gate, and went in as he came out. We eyed one another narrowly in passing, and with no favour.
'Aunt,' said I, hurriedly. 'This man alarming you again! Let me speak to him. Who is he?'
'Child,' returned my aunt, taking my arm, 'come in, and don't speak to me for ten minutes.'
We sat down in her little parlour. My aunt retired behind the round green fan of former days, which was screwed on the back of a chair, and occasionally wiped her eyes, for about a quarter of an hour. Then she came out, and took a seat beside me.
'Trot,' said my aunt, calmly, 'it's my husband.'
'Your husband, aunt? I thought he had been dead!'
'Dead to me,' returned my aunt, 'but living.'
I sat in silent amazement.
'Betsey Trotwood don't look a likely subject for the tender passion,' said my aunt, composedly, 'but the time was, Trot, when she believed in that man most entirely. When she loved him, Trot, right well. When there was no proof of attachment and affection that she would not have given him. He repaid her by breaking her fortune, and nearly breaking her heart. So she put all that sort of sentiment, once and for ever, in a grave, and filled it up, and flattened it down.'
'My dear, good aunt!'
'I left him,' my aunt proceeded, laying her hand as usual on the back of mine, 'generously. I may say at this distance of time, Trot, that I left him generously. He had been so cruel to me, that I might have effected a separation on easy terms for myself; but I did not. He soon made ducks and drakes of what I gave him, sank lower and lower, married another woman, I believe, became an adventurer, a gambler, and a cheat. What he is now, you see. But he was a fine-looking man when I married him,' said my aunt, with an echo of her old pride and admiration in her tone; 'and I believed him — I was a fool! — to be the soul of honour!'
She gave my hand a squeeze, and shook her head.
'He is nothing to me now, Trot — less than nothing. But, sooner than have him punished for his offences (as he would be if he prowled about in this country), I give him more money than I can afford, at intervals when he reappears, to go away. I was a fool when I married him; and I am so far an incurable fool on that subject, that, for the sake of what I once believed him to be, I wouldn't have even this shadow of my idle fancy hardly dealt with. For I was in earnest, Trot, if ever a woman was.'
MY aunt dismissed the matter with a heavy sigh, and smoothed her dress.
'There, my dear!' she said. 'Now you know the beginning, middle, and end, and all about it. We won't mention the subject to one another any more; neither, of course, will you mention it to anybody else. This is my grumpy, frumpy story, and we'll keep it to ourselves, Trot!'