There was not a detail of all this hidden from the eyes of Aunt Margaret. Stalham had decided that Aunt Margaret was ugly and uninteresting. Stalham, according to its own views, was right. Nevertheless the lady in Kingsbury Crescent had both eyes to see and a heart to feel. She was hot of temper, but she was forgiving. She liked her own way, but she was affectionate. She considered it right to teach her niece the unsavoury mysteries of economy, but she was aware that such mysteries must be distasteful to one brought up as Ayala. Even when she had been loudest in denouncing Ayala's mutiny, her heart had melted in ruth because Ayala had been so unhappy. She, too, had questioned herself again and again as to the justness of her decision. Was she entitled to rob Ayala of her chances? In her frequent discussions with her husband she still persisted in declaring that Kingsbury Crescent was safe, and that Stalham would be dangerous. But, nevertheless, in her own bosom she had misgivings. As she saw the poor girl mope and weary through one day after another, she could not but have misgivings.
"I have had that Lady Albury with me at the office to-day, and have almost promised that Ayala shall go to her on the 8th of November." It was thus that Mr. Dosett rushed at once into his difficulty as soon as he found himself up-stairs with his wife.
"Well, my dear, I almost did. She said a great deal, and I could not but agree with much of it. Ayala ought to have her chances."
"What chances?" demanded Mrs. Dosett, who did not at all like the expression.
"Well; seeing people. She never sees anybody here."
"Nobody is better than some people," said Mrs. Dosett, meaning to be severe on Lady Albury's probable guests.
"But if a girl sees nobody," said Mr. Dosett, "she can have no, – no, – no chances."
"She has the chance of wholesome victuals," said Mrs. Dosett, "and I don't know what other chances you or I can give her."
"She might see – a young man." This Mr. Dosett said very timidly.
"A young fiddlestick! A young man! Young men should be waited for till they come naturally, and never thought about if they don't come at all. I hate this looking after young men. If there wasn't a young man for the next dozen years we should do better, – so as just to get out of the way of thinking about them for a time." This was Mrs. Dosett's philosophy; but in spite of her philosophy she did yield, and on that night it was decided that Ayala after all was to be allowed to go to Stalham.
To Mr. Dosett was deputed the agreeable task of telling Ayala on the next evening what was to befall her. If anything agreeable was to be done in that sombre house it was always deputed to the master.
"What!" said Ayala, jumping from her chair.
"On the eighth of November," said Mr. Dosett.
"Lady Albury was with me yesterday at the office, and your aunt has consented."
"Oh, Uncle Reginald!" said Ayala, falling on her knees, and hiding her face on his lap.
"I'll never forget it," said Ayala, when she went to thank her aunt, – "never."
"I only hope it may not do you a mischief."
"And I beg your pardon, Aunt Margaret, because I was, – I was, – because I was – " She could not find the word which would express her own delinquency, without admitting more than she intended to admit, – "too self-asserting, considering that I am only a young girl." That would have been her meaning could she have found appropriate words.
"We need not go back to that now," said Aunt Margaret.
On the day fixed Ayala went down to Stalham. A few days before she started there came to her a letter, or rather an envelope, from her uncle Sir Thomas, enclosing a cheque for ?20. The Tringle women had heard that Ayala had been asked to Stalham, and had mentioned the visit disparagingly before Sir Thomas. "I think it very wrong of my poor brother," said Lady Tringle. "She can't have a shilling even to get herself gloves." This had an effect which had not been intended, and Sir Thomas sent the cheque for ?20. Then Ayala felt not only that the heavens were opened to her but that the sweetest zephyrs were blowing her on upon her course. Thoughts as to gloves had disturbed her, and as to some shoes which were wanting, and especially as to a pretty hat for winter wear. Now she could get hat and shoes and gloves, and pay her fare, and go down to Stalham with money in her pocket. Before going she wrote a very pretty note to her Uncle Tom.
On her arrival she was made much of by everyone. Lady Albury called her the caged bird, and congratulated her on her escape from the bars. Sir Harry asked her whether she could ride to hounds. Nina gave her a thousand kisses. But perhaps her greatest delight was in finding that Jonathan Stubbs was at Albury. She had become so intimate with the Colonel that she regarded him quite like an old friend; and when a girl has a male friend, though he may be much less loved, or not loved at all, he is always more pleasant, or at any rate more piquant, than a female friend. As for love with Colonel Stubbs that was quite out of the question. She was sure that he would never fall in love with herself. His manner to her was altogether unlike that of a lover. A lover would be smooth, soft, poetic, and flattering. He was always a little rough to her, – sometimes almost scolding her. But then he scolded her as she liked to be scolded, – with a dash of fun and a greatly predominating admixture of good-nature. He was like a bear, – but a bear who would always behave himself pleasantly. She was delighted when Colonel Stubbs congratulated her on her escape from Kingsbury Crescent, and felt that he was justified by his intimacy when he called Mrs. Dosett a mollified she-Cerberus.
"Are you going to make one of my team?" said the Colonel to her on the morning after her arrival. It was a non-hunting morning, and the gentlemen were vacant about the house till they went out for a little shooting later on in the day.
"What team?" said Ayala, feeling that she had suddenly received a check to her happiness. She knew that the Colonel was alluding to those hunting joys which were to be prepared for Nina, and which were far beyond her own reach. That question of riding gear is terrible to young ladies who are not properly supplied. Even had time admitted she would not have dared to use her uncle's money for such a purpose, in the hope that a horse might be lent to her. She had told herself that it was out of the question, and had declared to herself that she was too thankful for her visit to allow any regret on such a matter to cross her mind. But when the Colonel spoke of his team there was something of a pang. How she would have liked to be one of such a team!
"My pony team. I mean to drive too. You mustn't think that I am taking a liberty when I say that they are to be called Nina and Ayala."
There was no liberty at all. Had he called her simply Ayala she would have felt it to be no more than pleasant friendship, coming from him. He was so big, and so red, and so ugly, and so friendly! Why should he not call her Ayala? But as to that team, – it could not be. "If it's riding," she said demurely, "I can't be one of the ponies."
"It is riding, – of course. Now the Marchesa is not here, we mean to call it hunting in a mild way."
"I can't," she said.
"But you've got to do it, Miss Dormer."
"I haven't got anything to do it with. Of course, I don't mind telling you."
"You are to ride the sweetest little horse that ever was foaled, – just bigger than a pony. It belongs to Sir Harry's sister who is away, and we've settled it all. There never was a safer little beast, and he can climb through a fence without letting you know that it's there."
"But I mean – clothes," said Ayala. Then she whispered, "I haven't got a habit, or anything else anybody ought to have."
"Ah," said the Colonel; "I don't know anything about that. I should say that Nina must have managed that. The horse department was left to me, and I have done my part. You will find that you will have to go out next Tuesday and Friday. The hounds will be here on Tuesday, and they will be at Rufford on Friday. Rufford is only nine miles from here, and it's all settled."
Before the day was over the difficulty had vanished. Miss Albury's horse was not only called into requisition but Miss Albury's habit also. Ayala had a little black hat of her own, which Lady Albury assured her would do excellently well for the hunting field. There was some fitting and some trying on, and perhaps a few moments of preliminary despair; but on the Tuesday morning she rode away from the hall door at eleven o'clock mounted on Sprite, as the little horse was called, and felt herself from head to foot to be one of Colonel Stubbs's team. When at Glenbogie she had ridden a little, and again in Italy, and, being fearless by nature, had no trepidation to impair the fulness of her delight.
Hunting from home coverts rarely exacts much jumping from ladies. The woods are big, and the gates are numerous. It is when the far-away homes of wild foxes are drawn, – those secluded brakes and gorses where the nobler animal is wont to live at a distance from carriage-roads and other weak refuges of civilization, – that the riding capacities of ladies must be equal to those of their husbands and brothers. This present moment was an occasion for great delight, – at least, so it was found by both Nina and Ayala. But it was not an opportunity for great glory. Till it was time for lunch one fox after another ran about the big woods of Albury in a fashion that seemed perfect to the two girls, but which nearly broke the heart of old Tony, who was still huntsman to the Ufford and Rufford United Hunt. "Darm their nasty ways," said Tony to Mr. Larry Twentyman, who was one of the popular habitues of the hunt; "they runs one a top of anothers brushes, till there ain't a 'ound living knows t'other from which. There's always a many on 'em at Albury, but I never knew an Albury fox worth his grub yet." But there was galloping along roads and through gates, and long strings of horsemen followed each other up and down the rides, and an easy coming back to the places from which they started, which made the girls think that the whole thing was divine. Once or twice there was a little bank, and once or twice a little ditch, – just sufficient to make Ayala feel that no possible fence would be a difficulty to Sprite. She soon learnt that mode of governing her body which leaping requires, and when she was brought into lunch at about two she was sure that she could do anything which the art of hunting required. But at lunch an edict went forth as to the two girls, against further hunting for that day. Nina strove to rebel, and Ayala attempted to be eloquent by a supplicating glance at the Colonel. But they were told that as the horses would be wanted again on Friday they had done enough. In truth, Tony had already trotted off with the hounds to Pringle's Gorse, a distance of five miles, and the gentlemen who had lingered over their lunch had to follow him at their best pace. "Pringle's Gorse is not just the place for young ladies," Sir Harry said, and so the matter had been decided against Nina and Ayala.
At about six Sir Harry, Colonel Stubbs, and the other gentlemen returned, declaring that nothing quicker than their run from Pringle's Gorse had ever been known in that country. "About six miles straight on end in forty minutes," said the Colonel, "and then a kill in the open."
"He was laid up under a bank," said young Gosling.
"He was so beat he couldn't carry on a field farther," said Captain Batsby, who was staying in the house.
"I call that the open," said Stubbs.
"I always think I kill a fox in the open," said Sir Harry, "when the hounds run into him, because he cannot run another yard with the country there before him." Then there was a long discussion, as they stood drinking tea before the fire, as to what "the open" meant, from which they went to other hunting matters. To all this Ayala listened with attentive ears, and was aware that she had spent a great day. Oh, what a difference was there between Stalham and Kingsbury Crescent!
The next two days were almost equally full of delight. She was taken into the stables to see her horse, and as she patted his glossy coat she felt that she loved Sprite with all her heart. Oh, what a world of joy was this; – how infinitely superior even to Queen's Gate and Glenbogie! The gaudy magnificence of the Tringles had been altogether unlike the luxurious comfort of Stalham, where everybody was at his ease, where everybody was good-natured, where everybody seemed to acknowledge that pleasure was the one object of life! On the evening before the Friday she was taken out to dinner by Captain Batsby. She was not sure that she liked Captain Batsby, who made little complimentary speeches to her. But her neighbour on the other side was Colonel Stubbs, and she was quite sure that she liked Colonel Stubbs.
"I know you'll go like a bird to-morrow," said Captain Batsby.
"I shouldn't like that, because there would be no jumping," said Ayala.
"But you'd be such a beautiful bird." The Captain, as he drawled out his words, made an eye at her, and she was sure that she did not like the Captain.
"At what time are we to start to-morrow?" she said, turning to the Colonel.
"Ten, sharp. Mind you're ready. Sir Harry takes us on the drag, and wouldn't wait for Venus, though she wanted five minutes more for her back hair."
"I don't suppose she ever wants any time for her back hair. I wouldn't if I were a goddess."
"Then you'd be a very untidy goddess, that's all. I wonder whether you are untidy."
"Well; – yes; – sometimes."
"I hate untidy girls."
"Thank you, Colonel Stubbs."
"What I like is a nice prim little woman, who never had a pin in the wrong place in her life. Her cuffs and collars are always as stiff as steel, and she never rubs the sleeves of her dresses by leaning about, like some young ladies."
"That's what I do."
"My young woman never sits down lest she should crease her dress. My young woman never lets her ribbons get tangled. My young woman can dress upon ?40 a-year, and always look as though she came out of a band-box."
"I don't believe you've got a young woman, Colonel Stubbs."
"Well; no; I haven't, – except in my imagination."
If so, he too must have his Angel of Light! "Do you ever dream about her?"
"Oh dear, yes. I dream that she does scold so awfully when I have her to myself. In my dreams, you know, I'm married to her, and she always wants me to eat hashed mutton. Now, if there is one thing that makes me more sick than another it is hashed mutton. Of course I shall marry her in some of my waking moments, and then I shall have to eat hashed mutton for ever."
Then Captain Batsby put in another word. "I should so like to be allowed to give you a lead to-morrow."
"Oh, thank you, – but I'd rather not have it," said Ayala, who was altogether in the dark, thinking that "a lead" might be some present which she would not wish to accept from Captain Batsby.
"I mean that I should like to show you a line if we get a run."
"What is a line?" asked Ayala.
"A line? Why a line is just a lead; – keep your eye on me and I'll take the fences where you can follow without coming to grief."
"Oh," said Ayala, "that's a lead is it? Colonel Stubbs is going to give my friend and me a lead, as long as we stay here."
"No man ever ought to coach more than one lady at once," said the Captain, showing his erudition. "You're sure to come on top of one another if there are two."
"But Colonel Stubbs is especially told by the Marchesa to look after both of us," said Ayala almost angrily. Then she turned her shoulder to him, and was soon intent upon further instructions from the Colonel.
The following morning was fine, and all the ladies in the house were packed on to the top of Sir Harry's drag. The Colonel sat behind Sir Harry on the plea that he was wanted to take care of the two girls. Captain Batsby and three other gentlemen were put inside, where they consoled themselves with unlimited tobacco. In this way they were driven to a spot called Rufford Cross Roads, where they found Tony Tappett sitting perfectly quiescent on his old mare, while the hounds were seated around him on the grassy sides of the roads. With him was talking a stout, almost middle-aged gentleman, in a scarlet coat, and natty pink-top boots, who was the owner of all the country around. This was Lord Rufford, who a few years since was known as one of the hardest riders in those parts; but he had degenerated into matrimony, was now the happy father of half-a-dozen babies, and was hardly ever seen to jump over a fence. But he still came out when the meets were not too distant, and carefully performed that first duty of an English country gentleman, – the preservation of foxes. Though he did not ride much, no one liked a little hunting gossip better than Lord Rufford. It was, however, observed that even in regard to hunting he was apt to quote the authority of his wife.
"Oh, yes, my Lord," said Tony, "there'll sure to be a fox at Dillsborough. But we'll find one afore we get to Rufford, my Lord."
"Lady Rufford says there hasn't been a fox seen in the home woods this week."
"Her ladyship will be sure to know," said Tony.
"Do you remember that fence where poor Major Caneback got his fall six years ago?" asked the Lord.
"Seven years next Christmas, my Lord," said Tony. "He never put a leg across a saddle again, poor fellow! I remember him well, my Lord; a man who could 'andle a 'orse wonderful, though he didn't know 'ow to ride to 'ounds; not according to my idea. To get your animal to carry you through, never mind 'ow long the thing is; that's my idea of riding to 'ounds, my Lord. The major was for always making a 'orse jump over everything. I never wants 'em to jump over nothing I can't help; – I don't, my Lord."
"That's just what her ladyship is always saying to me," said Lord Rufford, "and I do pretty much what her ladyship tells me."
On this occasion Lady Rufford had been quite right about the home covers. No doubt she generally was right in any assertion she made as to her husband's affairs. After drawing them Tony trotted on towards Dillsborough, running his hounds through a few little springs, which lay near his way. As they went Colonel Stubbs rode between the two girls. "Whenever I see Rufford," said the Colonel, "he does me a world of good."
"What good can a fat man like that do to you?" said Nina.
"He is a continual sermon against marriage. If I could see Rufford once a week I know that I should be safe."
"He seems to me to be a very comfortable old gentleman," said Ayala.
"Old! Seven years ago he was acknowledged to be the one undisputed paragon of a young man in this county. No one else dreamed of looking at a young lady if he chose to turn his eyes in that direction. He was handsome as Apollo – "
"He an Apollo!" said Nina.
"The best Apollo there then was in these parts, and every one knew that he had forty thousand a-year to spend. Now he is supposed to be the best hand in the house at rocking the cradle."
"Do you mean to say that he nurses the babies?" asked Ayala.
"He looks as if he did at any rate. He never goes ten miles away from his door without having Lady Rufford with him, and is always tucked up at night just at half-past ten by her ladyship's own maid. Ten years ago he would generally have been found at midnight with cards in his hand and a cigar in his mouth. Now he is allowed two cigarettes a-day. Well, Mr. Twentyman, how are you getting on?" This he said to a good looking better sort of farmer, who came up, riding a remarkably strong horse, and dressed in pink and white cords.
"Thank ye, Colonel, pretty well, considering how hard the times are. A man who owns a few acres and tries to farm them must be on the road to ruin now-a-days. That's what I'm always telling my wife, so that she may know what she has got to expect." Mr. Twentyman had been married just twelve months.
"She isn't much frightened, I daresay," said the Colonel.
"She's young, you see," continued the farmer, "and hasn't settled herself down yet to the sorrows of life." This was that Mr. Lawrence Twentyman who married Kate Masters, the youngest daughter of old Masters, the attorney at Dillsborough, and sister of Mrs. Morton, wife of the squire of Bragton. "By the holy," said Twentyman, suddenly, "the hounds have put a fox out of that little spinney."