On the second day after Sir Pitt Crawley's offer to Miss Sharp, the sun rose as usual, and at the usual hour Betty Martin, the upstairs maid, knocked at the door of the governess's bedchamber.
No answer was returned, and she knocked again. Silence was still uninterrupted; and Betty, with the hot water, opened the door and entered the chamber.
The little white dimity bed was as smooth and trim as on the day previous, when Betty's own hands had helped to make it. Two little trunks were corded in one end of the room; and on the table before the window — on the pincushion the great fat pincushion lined with pink inside, and twilled like a lady's nightcap — lay a letter. It had been reposing there probably all night.
Betty advanced towards it on tiptoe, as if she were afraid to awake it — looked at it, and round the room, with an air of great wonder and satisfaction; took up the letter, and grinned intensely as she turned it round and over, and finally carried it into Miss Briggs's room below.
How could Betty tell that the letter was for Miss Briggs, I should like to know? All the schooling Betty had had was at Mrs. Bute Crawley's Sunday school, and she could no more read writing than Hebrew.
"La, Miss Briggs," the girl exclaimed, "O, Miss, something must have happened — there's nobody in Miss Sharp's room; the bed ain't been slep in, and she've run away, and left this letter for you, Miss."
"WHAT!" cries Briggs, dropping her comb, the thin wisp of faded hair falling over her shoulders; "an elopement! Miss Sharp a fugitive! What, what is this?" and she eagerly broke the neat seal, and, as they say, "devoured the contents" of the letter addressed to her.
Dear Miss Briggs [the refugee wrote], the kindest heart in the world, as yours is, will pity and sympathise with me and excuse me. With tears, and prayers, and blessings, I leave the home where the poor orphan has ever met with kindness and affection. Claims even superior to those of my benefactress call me hence. I go to my duty — to my HUSBAND. Yes, I am married. My husband COMMANDS me to seek the HUMBLE HOME which we call ours. Dearest Miss Briggs, break the news as your delicate sympathy will know how to do it — to my dear, my beloved friend and benefactress. Tell her, ere I went, I shed tears on her dear pillow — that pillow that I have so often soothed in sickness — that I long AGAIN to watch — Oh, with what joy shall I return to dear Park Lane! How I tremble for the answer which is to SEAL MY FATE! When Sir Pitt deigned to offer me his hand, an honour of which my beloved Miss Crawley said I was DESERVING (my blessings go with her for judging the poor orphan worthy to be HER SISTER!) I told Sir Pitt that I was already A WIFE. Even he forgave me. But my courage failed me, when I should have told him all — that I could not be his wife, for I WAS HIS DAUGHTER! I am wedded to the best and most generous of men — Miss Crawley's Rawdon is MY Rawdon. At his COMMAND I open my lips, and follow him to our humble home, as I would THROUGH THE WORLD. O, my excellent and kind friend, intercede with my Rawdon's beloved aunt for him and the poor girl to whom all HIS NOBLE RACE have shown such UNPARALLELED AFFECTION. Ask Miss Crawley to receive HER CHILDREN. I can say no more, but blessings, blessings on all in the dear house I leave, prays
Your affectionate and GRATEFUL Rebecca Crawley. Midnight.
Just as Briggs had finished reading this affecting and interesting document, which reinstated her in her position as first confidante of Miss Crawley, Mrs. Firkin entered the room. "Here's Mrs. Bute Crawley just arrived by the mail from Hampshire, and wants some tea; will you come down and make breakfast, Miss?"
And to the surprise of Firkin, clasping her dressing-gown around her, the wisp of hair floating dishevelled behind her, the little curl-papers still sticking in bunches round her forehead, Briggs sailed down to Mrs. Bute with the letter in her hand containing the wonderful news.
"Oh, Mrs. Firkin," gasped Betty, "sech a business. Miss Sharp have a gone and run away with the Capting, and they're off to Gretney Green!" We would devote a chapter to describe the emotions of Mrs. Firkin, did not the passions of her mistresses occupy our genteeler muse.
When Mrs. Bute Crawley, numbed with midnight travelling, and warming herself at the newly crackling parlour fire, heard from Miss Briggs the intelligence of the clandestine marriage, she declared it was quite providential that she should have arrived at such a time to assist poor dear Miss Crawley in supporting the shock — that Rebecca was an artful little hussy of whom she had always had her suspicions; and that as for Rawdon Crawley, she never could account for his aunt's infatuation regarding him, and had long considered him a profligate, lost, and abandoned being. And this awful conduct, Mrs. Bute said, will have at least this good effect, it will open poor dear Miss Crawley's eyes to the real character of this wicked man. Then Mrs. Bute had a comfortable hot toast and tea; and as there was a vacant room in the house now, there was no need for her to remain at the Gloster Coffee House where the Portsmouth mail had set her down, and whence she ordered Mr. Bowls's aide-de-camp the footman to bring away her trunks.
Miss Crawley, be it known, did not leave her room until near noon — taking chocolate in bed in the morning, while Becky Sharp read the Morning Post to her, or otherwise amusing herself or dawdling. The conspirators below agreed that they would spare the dear lady's feelings until she appeared in her drawing-room: meanwhile it was announced to her that Mrs. Bute Crawley had come up from Hampshire by the mail, was staying at the Gloster, sent her love to Miss Crawley, and asked for breakfast with Miss Briggs. The arrival of Mrs. Bute, which would not have caused any extreme delight at another period, was hailed with pleasure now; Miss Crawley being pleased at the notion of a gossip with her sister-in-law regarding the late Lady Crawley, the funeral arrangements pending, and Sir Pitt's abrupt proposal to Rebecca.
It was not until the old lady was fairly ensconced in her usual arm- chair in the drawing-room, and the preliminary embraces and inquiries had taken place between the ladies, that the conspirators thought it advisable to submit her to the operation. Who has not admired the artifices and delicate approaches with which women "prepare" their friends for bad news? Miss Crawley's two friends made such an apparatus of mystery before they broke the intelligence to her, that they worked her up to the necessary degree of doubt and alarm.
"And she refused Sir Pitt, my dear, dear Miss Crawley, prepare yourself for it," Mrs. Bute said, "because — because she couldn't help herself."
"Of course there was a reason," Miss Crawley answered. "She liked somebody else. I told Briggs so yesterday."
"LIKES somebody else!" Briggs gasped. "O my dear friend, she is married already."
"Married already," Mrs. Bute chimed in; and both sate with clasped hands looking from each other at their victim.
"Send her to me, the instant she comes in. The little sly wretch: how dared she not tell me?" cried out Miss Crawley.
"She won't come in soon. Prepare yourself, dear friend — she's gone out for a long time — she's — she's gone altogether."
"Gracious goodness, and who's to make my chocolate? Send for her and have her back; I desire that she come back," the old lady said.
"She decamped last night, Ma'am," cried Mrs. Bute.
"She left a letter for me," Briggs exclaimed. "She's married to — "
"Prepare her, for heaven's sake. Don't torture her, my dear Miss Briggs."
"She's married to whom?" cries the spinster in a nervous fury.
"To — to a relation of — "