The poor girl, when she tacitly agreed that her uncle should be the arbiter in the matter, thus pledging herself to abide by her uncle's decision, let it be what it might, did not think what great advantage her aunt would have over her in that discussion which would be held upstairs while the master of the house was washing his hands before dinner. Nor did she know of how much stronger will was her Aunt Margaret than her Uncle Reginald. While he was washing his hands and putting on his slippers, the matter was settled in a manner quite destructive of poor Ayala's hopes. "I won't have it," said Mrs. Dosett, in reply to the old argument that young people ought to have some amusement. "If I am to be responsible for the girl I must be allowed my own way with her. It is trouble enough, and very little thanks I get for it. Of course she hates me. Nevertheless, I can endeavour to do my duty, and I will. It is not thanks, nor love, nor even gratitude, that I look for. I am bound to do the best I can by her because she is your niece, and because she has no other real friends. I knew what would come of it when she went to that house in Brook Street. I was soft then and gave way. The girl has moped about like a miserable creature ever since. If I am not to have my way now I will have done with her altogether." Having heard this very powerful speech, Uncle Reginald was obliged to give way, and it was settled that after dinner he should convey to Ayala the decision to which they had come.
Ayala, as she sat at the dinner-table, was all expectation, but she asked no question. She asked no question after dinner, while her uncle slowly, solemnly, and sadly sipped his one beaker of cold gin-and-water. He sipped it very slowly, no doubt because he was anxious to postpone the evil moment in which he must communicate her fate to his niece. But at last the melancholy glass was drained, and then, according to the custom of the family, Mrs. Dosett led the way up into the drawing-room, followed by Ayala and her husband. He, when he was on the stairs, and when the eyes of his wife were not upon him, tremulously put out his hand and laid it on Ayala's shoulder, as though to embrace her. The poor girl knew well that mark of affection. There would have been no need for such embracing had the offered joys of Stalham been in store for her. The tears were already in her eyes when she seated herself in the drawing-room, as far removed as possible from the arm-chair which was occupied by her aunt.
Then her uncle pronounced his judgment in a vacillating voice, – with a vacillation which was ineffectual of any good to Ayala. "Ayala," he said, "your aunt and I have been talking over this invitation to Stalham, and we are of opinion, my dear, that you had better not accept it."
"Why not, Uncle Reginald?"
"There would be expense."
"I can pay for my own ticket."
"There would be many expenses, which I need not explain to you more fully. The truth is, my dear, that poor people cannot afford to live with rich people, and had better not attempt it."
"I don't want to live with them."
"Visiting them is living with them for a time.
"It isn't advice at all," said Ayala.
"Ayala!" exclaimed her aunt, in a tone of indignation.
"It isn't advice," repeated Ayala. "Of course, if you won't let me go, I can't."
"You are a very wicked girl," said Mrs. Dosett, "to speak to your uncle like that, after all that he has done for you."
"Not wicked," said the uncle.
"I say, wicked. But it doesn't matter. I shall at once write to Lady Albury, as you desire, and of course there will be no further question as to her going." Soon after that Mrs. Dosett sat down to her desk, and wrote that letter to which the Marchesa had alluded in hers to her nephew. No doubt it was stern and hard, and of a nature to make such a woman as the Marchesa feel that Mrs. Dosett would not be a pleasant companion for a girl like Ayala. But it was written with a full conviction that duty required it; and the words, though hard and stiff, had been chosen with the purpose of showing that the doing of this disagreeable duty had been felt to be imperative.
When the matter had been thus decided, Ayala soon retreated to her own room. Her very soul was burning with indignation at the tyranny to which she thought herself subjected. The use of that weak word, advice, had angered her more than anything. It had not been advice. It had not been given as advice. A command had been laid upon her, a most cruel and unjust command, which she was forced to obey, because she lacked the power of escaping from her condition of slavery. Advice, indeed! Advice is a thing with which the advised one may or may not comply, as that advised one may choose. A slave must obey an order! Her own papa and her own mamma had always advised her, and the advice had always been followed, even when read only in the glance of an eye, in a smile, or a nod. Then she had known what it was to be advised. Now she was ordered, – as slaves are ordered; and there was no escape from her slavery!
She, too, must write her letter, but there was no need now of that pretty studied phrase, in which she had hoped to thank Lady Albury fitly for her great kindness. She found, after a vain attempt or two, that it was hopeless to endeavour to write to Lady Albury. The words would not come to her pen. But she did write to Nina; —
Dear, dearest Nina,
They won't let me go! Oh, my darling, I am so miserable! Why should they not let me go, when people are so kind, so very kind, as Lady Albury and your dear mamma? I feel as though I should like to run from the house, and never come back, even though I had to die in the streets. I was so happy when I got your letter and Lady Albury's, and now I am so wretched! I cannot write to Lady Albury. You must just tell her, with many thanks from me, that they will not let me go!Your unhappy but affectionate friend,Ayala.
There was much pity felt for Ayala among the folk at Stalham. The sympathies of them all should have been with Mrs. Dosett. They ought to have felt that the poor aunt was simply performing an unpleasant duty, and that the girl was impracticable if not disobedient. But Ayala was known to be very pretty, and Mrs. Dosett was supposed to be plain. Ayala was interesting, while Mrs. Dosett, from the nature of her circumstances, was most uninteresting. It was agreed on all sides, at Stalham, that so pretty a bird as Ayala should not be imprisoned for ever in so ugly a cage. Such a bird ought, at least, to be allowed its chance of captivating some fitting mate by its song and its plumage. That was Lady Albury's argument, – a woman very good-natured, a little given to match-making, a great friend to pretty girls, – and whose eldest son was as yet only nine, so that there could be no danger to herself or her own flock. There was much ridicule thrown on Mrs. Dosett at Stalham, and many pretty things said of the bird who was so unworthily imprisoned in Kingsbury Crescent. At last there was something like a conspiracy, the purport of which was to get the bird out of its cage in November.
In this conspiracy it can hardly be said that the Marchesa took an active part. Much as she liked Ayala, she was less prone than Lady Albury to think that the girl was ill-used. She was more keenly alive than her cousin, – or rather her cousin's wife, – to the hard necessities of the world. Ayala must be said to have made her own bed. At any rate there was the bed and she must lie on it. It was not the Dosetts' fault that they were poor. According to their means they were doing the best they could for their niece, and were entitled to praise rather than abuse. And then the Marchesa was afraid for her nephew. Colonel Stubbs, in his letter to her, had declared that he quite agreed with her views as to matrimony; but she was quite alive to her nephew's sarcasm. Her nephew, though he might in truth agree with her, nevertheless was sarcastic. Though he was sarcastic, still he might be made to accede to her views, because he did, in truth, agree with her. She was eminently an intelligent woman, seeing far into character, and she knew pretty well the real condition of her nephew's mind, and could foresee his conduct. He would marry before long, and might not improbably marry a girl with some money if one could be made to come in his way, who would at the same time suit his somewhat fastidious taste. But Ayala suited his taste, Ayala who had not a shilling, and the Marchesa thought it only too likely that if Ayala were released from her cage, and brought to Albury, Ayala might become Mrs. Jonathan Stubbs. That Ayala should refuse to become Mrs. Jonathan Stubbs did not present itself as a possibility to the Marchesa.
So the matters were when the Marchesa and Nina returned from Stalham to London, a promise having been given that Nina should go back to Stalham in November, and be allowed to see the glories of a hunt. She was not to ride to hounds. That was a matter of course, but she was to be permitted to see what a pack of hounds was like, and of what like were the men in their scarlet coats, and how the huntsman's horn would sound when it should be heard among the woods and fields. It was already decided that the Colonel should be there to meet her, and the conspiracy was formed with the object of getting Ayala out of her cage at the same time. Stalham was a handsome country seat, in the county of Rufford, and Sir Harry Albury had lately taken upon himself the duties of Master of the Rufford and Ufford United Pack. Colonel Stubbs was to be there with his horses in November, but had, in the meantime, been seen by Lady Albury, and had been instigated to do something for the release of Ayala. But what could he do? It was at first suggested that he should call at Kingsbury Crescent, and endeavour to mollify the stony heart of Aunt Dosett. But, as he had said himself, he would be the worst person in the world to perform such an embassy. "I am not an Adonis, I know," he said, "nor do I look like a Lothario, but still I am in some sort a young man, and therefore certain to be regarded as pernicious, as dangerous and damnable, by such a dragon of virtue as Aunt Dosett. I don't see how I could expect to have a chance." This interview took place in London during the latter end of October, and it was at last decided that the mission should be made by Lady Albury herself, and made, not to Mrs. Dosett, at Kingsbury Crescent, but to Mr. Dosett at his office in Somerset House. "I don't think I could stand Mrs. D.," said Lady Albury.
Lady Albury was a handsome fashionable woman, rather tall, always excellently dressed, and possessed of a personal assurance which nothing could daunt. She had the reputation of an affectionate wife and a good mother, but was nevertheless declared by some of her friends to be "a little fast." She certainly was fond of comedy, – those who did not like her were apt to say that her comedy was only fun, – and was much disposed to have her own way when she could get it. She was now bent upon liberating Ayala from her cage, and for this purpose had herself driven into the huge court belonging to Somerset House.
Mr. Dosett was dignified at his office with the use of a room to himself, a small room looking out upon the river, in which he spent six hours on six days of the week in arranging the indexes of a voluminous library of manuscript letter-books. It was rarely indeed that he was disturbed by the presence of any visitor. When, therefore, his door was opened by one of the messengers, and he was informed that Lady Albury desired to see him, he was for the moment a good deal disturbed. No option, however, was given to him as to refusing admission to Lady Albury. She was in the room before the messenger had completed his announcement, and had seated herself in one of the two spare chairs which the room afforded as soon as the door was closed. "Mr. Dosett," she said, "I have taken the great liberty of calling to say a few words about your niece, Miss Ayala Dormer."
When the lady was first announced, Mr. Dosett, in his confusion, had failed to connect the name which he had heard with that of the lady who had invited Ayala to her house. But now he recognised it, and knew who it was that had come to him. "You were kind enough," he said, "to invite my little girl to your house some weeks ago."
"And now I have come to invite her again."
Mr. Dosett was now more disturbed than ever. With what words was he to refuse the request which this kind but very grand lady was about to make? How could he explain to her all those details as to his own poverty, and as to Ayala's fate in having to share that poverty with him? How could he explain the unfitness of Ayala's temporary sojourn with people so wealthy and luxurious? And yet were he to yield in the least how could he face his wife on his return home to the Crescent? "You are very kind, Lady Albury," he said.
"We particularly wish to have her about the end of the first week in November," said the lady. "Her friend Nina Baldoni will be there, and one or two others whom she knows. We shall try to be a little gay for a week or two."
"I have no doubt it would be gay, and we at home are very dull."
"Do you not think a little gaiety good for young people?" said her ladyship, using the very argument which poor Mr. Dosett had so often attempted to employ on Ayala's behalf.
"Yes; a little gaiety," he said, as though deprecating the excessive amount of hilarity which he imagined to prevail at Stalham.
"Of course you do," said Lady Albury. "Poor little girl! I have heard so much about her, and of all your goodness to her. Mrs. Dosett I know is another mother to her; but still a little country air could not but be beneficial. Do say that she shall come to us, Mr. Dosett."
Then Mr. Dosett felt that, disagreeable as it was, he must preach the sermon which his wife had preached to him, and he did preach it. He spoke timidly of his own poverty, and the need which there was that Ayala should share it. He spoke a word of the danger which might come from luxury, and of the discontent which would be felt when the girl returned to her own home. Something he added of the propriety of like living with like, and ended by praying that Ayala might be excused. The words came from him with none of that energy which his wife could have used, – were uttered in a low melancholy drone; but still they were words hard to answer, and called upon Lady Albury for all her ingenuity in finding an argument against them.
But Lady Albury was strong-minded, and did find an argument. "You musn't be angry with me," she said, "if I don't quite agree with you. Of course you wish to do the best you can for this dear child."
"Indeed I do, Lady Albury."
"How is anything then to be done for her if she remains shut up in your house? You do not, if I understand, see much company yourselves."
"None at all."
"You won't be angry with me for my impertinence in alluding to it."
"Not in the least. It is the fact that we live altogether to ourselves."
"And the happiest kind of life too for married people," said Lady Albury, who was accustomed to fill her house in the country with a constant succession of visitors, and to have engagements for every night of the week in town. "But for young people it is not quite so good. How is a young lady to get herself settled in life?"
"Settled?" asked Mr. Dosett, vaguely.
"Married," suggested Lady Albury, more plainly. Mr. Dosett shook his head. No idea on the subject had ever flashed across his mind. To provide bread and meat, a bed and clothes, for his sister's child he had felt to be a duty, – but not a husband. Husbands came, or did not, – as the heavens might be propitious. That Ayala should go to Stalham for the sake of finding a husband was certainly beyond the extent of his providing care. "In fact how is a girl to have a chance at all unless she is allowed to see some one? Of course I don't say this with reference to our house. There will be no young men there, or anything of that kind. But, taking a broad view, unless you let a girl like that have what chances come in her way how is she to get on? I think you have hardly a right to do it."
"We have done it for the best."
"I am sure of that, Mr. Dosett. And I hope you will tell Mrs. Dosett, with my compliments, how thoroughly I appreciate her goodness. I should have called upon her instead of coming here, only that I cannot very well get into that part of the town."
"I will tell her what you are good enough to say."
"Poor Ayala! I am afraid that her other aunt, Aunt Tringle, was not as good to her as your wife. I have heard about how all that occurred in Rome. She was very much admired there. I am told that she is perfectly lovely."
"A sort of beauty that we hardly ever see now, – and very, very clever."
"Ayala is clever, I think."
"She ought to have her chance. She ought indeed. I don't think you quite do your duty by such a girl as that unless you let her have a chance. She is sure to get to know people, and to be asked from one house to another. I speak plainly, for I really think you ought to let her come."
All this sank deeply into the heart of Uncle Reginald. Whether it was for good or evil it seemed to him at the moment to be unanswerable. If there was a chance of any good thing for Ayala, surely it could not be his duty to bar her from that chance. A whole vista of new views in reference to the treatment of young ladies was opened to him by the words of his visitor. Ayala certainly was pretty. Certainly she was clever. A husband with an income would certainly be a good thing. Embryo husbands with incomes do occasionally fall in love with pretty girls. But how can any pretty girl be fallen in love with unless some one be permitted to see her? At Kingsbury Crescent there was not a man to be seen from one end of the year to another. It occurred to him now, for the first time, that Ayala by her present life was shut out from any chance of marriage. It was manifestly true that he had no right to seclude her in that fashion. At last he made a promise, rashly, as he felt at the very moment of making it, that he would ask his wife to allow Ayala to go to Stalham. Lady Albury of course accepted this as an undertaking that Ayala should come, and went away triumphant.
Mr. Dosett walked home across the parks with a troubled mind, thinking much of all that had passed between him and the lady of fashion. It was with great difficulty that he could quite make up his mind which was right, – the lady of fashion or his wife. If Ayala was to live always as they lived at Kingsbury Crescent, if it should in process of time be her fate to marry some man in the same class as themselves, if continued care as to small pecuniary needs was to be her future lot, then certainly her comfort would only be disturbed by such a visit as that now proposed. And was it not probable that such would be the destiny in store for her? Mr. Dosett knew the world well enough to be aware that all pretty girls such as Ayala cannot find rich husbands merely by exhibiting their prettiness. Kingsbury Crescent, unalloyed by the dangers of Stalham, would certainly be the most secure. But then he had been told that Ayala now had special chances offered to her, and that he had no right to rob her of those chances. He felt this the more strongly, because she was not his daughter, – only his niece. With a daughter he and his wife might have used their own judgment without check. But now he had been told that he had no right to rob Ayala of her chances, and he felt that he had not the right. By the time that he reached Kingsbury Crescent he had, with many misgivings, decided in favour of Stalham.
It was now some weeks since the first invitation had been refused, and during those weeks life had not been pleasant at the Crescent. Ayala moped and pined as though some great misfortune had fallen upon her. When she had first come to the Crescent she had borne herself bravely, as a man bears a trouble when he is conscious that he has brought it on himself by his own act, and is proud of the act which has done it. But when that excitement has gone, and the trouble still remains, the pride wears off, and the man is simply alive to his suffering. So it had been with Ayala. Then had come the visit to Brook Street. When, soon after that, she was invited to Stalham, it seemed as though a new world was being opened to her. There came a moment when she could again rejoice that she had quarrelled with her Aunt Emmeline. This new world would be a much better world than the Tringle world. Then had come the great blow, and it had seemed to her as though there was nothing but Kingsbury Crescent before her for the rest of her wretched life.