Ayala, who had been listening attentively to the conversation of Mr. Twentyman, and been feeling that she was being initiated every moment into a new phase of life, – who had been endeavouring to make some connection in her mind between the new charms of the world around her and that world of her dreams that was ever present to her, and had as yet simply determined that neither could Lord Rufford or Mr. Twentyman have ever been an Angel of Light, – at once straightened herself in her saddle, and prepared herself for the doing of something memorable. It was evident to her that Mr. Twentyman considered that the moment for action had come. He did not gallop off wildly, as did four or five others, but stood still for a moment looking intently at a few hounds who, with their tails feathering in the air and with their noses down, seemed at the same time to be irresolute and determined, knowing that the scent was there but not yet quite fixed as to its line. "Half a moment, Colonel," he said, standing up in his stirrups, with his left hand raised, while his right held his reins and his whip close down on his horse's neck. "Half a moment!" He only whispered, and then shook his head angrily, as he heard the ill-timed shouting of one or two men who had already reached the other side of the little skirting of trees. "I wish Fred Botsey's tongue were tied to his teeth," he said, still whispering. "Now, Colonel, they have it. There's a little lane to the right, and a gate. After that the country's open, and there's nothing which the ladies' nags can't do. I know the country so well, you'd perhaps better come with me for a bit."
"He knows all about it," said the Colonel to Ayala. "Do as he tells you."
Ayala and Nina both were quick enough to obey. Twentyman dashed along the lane, while the girls followed him with the Colonel after them. When they were at the hunting-gate already spoken of, old Tony Tappett was with them, trotting, impatient to get to the hounds, courteously giving place to the ladies, – whom, however, in his heart, he wished at home in bed, – and then thrusting himself through the gate in front of the Colonel. "D – their pig-headed folly," he said, as he came up to his friend Twentyman – "they knows no more about it than if they'd just come from be'ind a counter, – 'olloaing, 'olloaing, 'olloaing, – as if 'olloaing'd make a fox break! 'Owsomever 'e's off now, and they've got Cranbury Brook between them and his line!" This he said in a squeaking little voice, intended to be jocose and satirical, shaking his head as he rode. This last idea seemed to give him great consolation.
It was the consideration, deep and well-founded, as to the Cranbury which had induced Larry Twentyman to pause on the road when he had paused, and then to make for the lane and the gate. The direction had hardly seemed to be that of the hounds, but Larry knew the spinney, knew the brook, – knew the fox, perhaps, – and was aware of the spot at which the brute would cross the water if he did cross it.
Sir Harry was then with them, and two or three other farmers. But Larry had a lead, and the two girls were with him. Tony Tappett, though he had got up to his hounds, did not endeavour to ride straight to them as did Larry Twentyman. He was old and unambitious, very anxious to know where his hounds were, so that he might be with them should they want the assistance of his voice and counsel, anxious to be near enough to take their fox from them should they run into him, but taking no glory in jumping over a fence if he could avoid it, creeping about here and there, knowing from experience nearly every turn in the animal's mind, aware of every impediment which would delay him, riding fast only when the impediments were far between, taking no amusement to himself out of the riding, but with his heart cruelly, bloodily, ruthlessly set upon killing the animal before him. To kill his fox he would imperil his neck, but for the glory of riding he would not soil his boots if he could help it. After the girls came the Colonel, somewhat shorn of his honour in that he was no longer giving them a lead, but doing his best to maintain the pace, which Twentyman was making very good. "Now, young ladies," said Twentyman, "give them their heads, and let them do it just as they please, – alongside of each other, and not too near to me." It was a brook, – a confluent of Cranbury Brook, and was wide enough to require a good deal of jumping. It may be supposed that the two young ladies did not understand much of the instructions given to them. To hold their breath and be brave was the only idea present to them. The rest must come from instinct and chance. The other side of the brook was heaven; – this would be purgatory. Larry, fearing perhaps that the order as to their not being too near might not be obeyed, added a little to his own pace so as to be clear of them. Nevertheless they were only a few strides behind, and had Larry's horse missed his footing there would have been a mess. As it was they took the brook side by side close to each other, and landed full of delight and glory on the opposite bank. "Bravo! young ladies," shouted Twentyman.
"Oh, Nina, that is divine," said Ayala. Nina was a little too much out of breath for answering, but simply threw up her eyes to Heaven and made a flourish with her whip, intended to be expressive of her perfect joy.
Away went Larry and away went the girls with him, quite unconscious that the Colonel's horse had balked the brook and then jumped into it, – quite unconscious that Sir Harry, seeing the Colonel's catastrophe, had followed Tony a quarter of a mile up the brook to a ford. Even in the soft bosoms of young ladies "the devil take the hindmost" will be the motto most appropriate for hunting. Larry Twentyman, of whom they had never heard before, was now the god of their idolatry. Where Larry Twentyman might go it was manifestly their duty to follow, even though they should never see the poor Colonel again. They recked nothing of the fox or of the hounds or of the master or even of the huntsman. They had a man before them to show them the way, and as long as they could keep him in sight each was determined to be at any rate as good as the other. To give Larry his due it must be acknowledged that he was thoroughly thoughtful of them. At every fence encountered he studied the spot at which they would be least likely to fall. He had to remember, also, that there were two of them together, and that he had made himself in a way responsible for the safety of both. All this he did, and did well, because he knew his business. With the exception of the water-jump, the country over which they passed was not difficult. For a time there was a run of gates, each of which their guide was able to open for them, and as they came near to Dillsborough Wood there were gaps in most of the fences; but it seemed to the girls that they had galloped over monstrous hedges and leapt over walls which it would almost take a strong man to climb. The brook, however, – the river as it seemed to them, – had been the crowning glory. Ayala was sure that that brook would never be forgotten by her. Even the Angel of Light was hardly more heavenly than the brook.
That the fox was running for Dillsborough Wood was a fact well known both to Tony Tappett and Mr. Larry Twentyman. A fox crossing the brook from the Rufford side would be sure to run to Dillsborough Wood. When Larry, with the two girls, were just about to enter the ride, there was old Tony standing up on his horse at the corner, looking into the covert. And now also a crowd of horsemen came rushing up, who had made their way along the road, and had passed up to the wood through Mr. Twentyman's farm-yard; – for, as it happened, here it was that Mr. Twentyman lived and farmed his own land. Then came Sir Harry, Colonel Stubbs, and some others who had followed the line throughout, – the Colonel with his boots full of water, as he had been forced to get off his horse in the bed of the brook. Sir Harry, himself, was not in the best of humours, – as will sometimes be the case with masters when they fail to see the cream of a run. "I never saw such riding in my life," said Sir Harry, as though some great sin had been committed by those to whom he was addressing himself. Larry turned round, and winked at the two girls, knowing that, if sin had been committed, they three were the sinners. The girls understood nothing about it, but still thought that Larry Twentyman was divine.
While they were standing about on the rides, Tony was still at his work. The riding was over, but the fox had to be killed, and Dillsborough Wood was a covert in which a fox will often require a large amount of killing. No happier home for the vulpine deity exists among the shires of England! There are earths there deep, capacious, full of nurseries; but these, on the present occasion, were debarred from the poor stranger by the wicked ingenuity of man. But there were deep dells, in which the brambles and bracken were so thick that no hound careful of his snout would penetrate them. The undergrowth of the wood was so interwoven that no huntsman could see through its depths. There were dark nooks so impervious that any fox ignorant of the theory of his own scent must have wondered why a hound should have been induced to creep into spaces so narrow. From one side to another of the wood the hunted brute would traverse, and always seem to have at last succeeded in putting his persecutors at fault. So it was on this occasion. The run, while it lasted, had occupied, perhaps, three-quarters of an hour, and during a time equally long poor old Tony was to be seen scurrying from one side of the wood to another, and was to be heard loudly swearing at his attendant whips because the hounds did not follow his footsteps as quickly as his soul desired.
"I never mean to put on a pair of top-boots again, as long as I live," said the Colonel. At this time a little knot of horsemen was stationed in a knoll in the centre of the wood, waiting till they should hear the fatal whoop. Among them were Nina, Ayala, the Colonel, Larry Twentyman, and Captain Batsby.
"Give up top-boots?" said Larry. "You don't mean to say you'll ride in black!"
"Top-boots, black boots, spurs, breeches, and red coat, I renounce them all from this moment. If ever I'm seen in a hunting field again it will be in a pair of trousers with overalls."
"Now, you're joking, Colonel," said Larry.
"Why won't you wear a red coat any more?" said Ayala.
"Because I'm disgraced for ever. I came out to coach two young women, and give them a lead, and all I've done was to tumble into a brook, while a better man has taken my charge away from me."
"Oh, Jonathan, I am so sorry," said Nina, "particularly about your getting into the water."
"Oh, Colonel Stubbs, we ought to have stopped," said Ayala.
"It was my only comfort to see how very little I was wanted," said the Colonel. "If I had broke my neck instead of wetting my feet it would have been just the same to some people."
"Oh, Jonathan!" said Nina, really shocked.
"We ought to have stopped. I know we ought to have stopped," said Ayala, almost crying.
"Nobody ever stops for any one out hunting," said Twentyman, laying down a great law.
"I should think not," said Captain Batsby, who had hardly been off the road all the time.
"I am sure the Colonel will not be angry with me because I took the young ladies on," said Larry.
"The Colonel is such a muff," said the Colonel himself, "that he will never presume to be angry with anybody again. But if my cousin and Miss Dormer are not very much obliged to you for what you have done for them there will be nothing of gratitude left in the female British bosom. You have probably given to them the most triumphant moment of their existence."
"It was their own riding, Colonel; I had nothing to do with it."
"I am so much obliged to you, Sir," said Nina.
"And so am I," said Ayala, "though it was such a pity that Colonel Stubbs got into the water."
At that moment came the long expected call. Tony Tappett had killed his fox, after crossing and re-crossing through the wood half a score of times. "Is it all over?" asked Ayala, as they hurried down the knoll and scurried down the line to get to the spot outside the wood to which Tony was dragging the carcase of his defeated enemy.
"It's all over for him," said Larry. "A good fox he was, but he'll never run again. He is one of them bred at Littlecotes. The foxes bred at Littlecotes always run."
"And is he dead?" asked Nina. "Poor fellow! I wish it wasn't necessary to kill them." Then they stood by till they saw the body of the victim thrown up into the air, and fall amongst the blood-smirched upturned noses of the expectant pack.
"I call that a pretty little run, Sir Harry," said Larry Twentyman.
"Pretty well," said Sir Harry; "the pace wasn't very great, or that pony of mine which Miss Dormer is riding could not have lived with it."
"Horses, Sir Harry, don't want so much pace, if they are allowed to go straight. It's when a man doesn't get well away, or has made a mess with his fences, that he needs an extra allowance of pace to catch the hounds. If you're once with them and can go straight you may keep your place without such a deal of legs." To this Sir Harry replied only by a grunt, as on the present occasion he had "made a mess with his fences," as Larry Twentyman had called it.
"And now, young ladies," said Larry, "I hope you'll come in and see my missus and her baby, and have a little bit of lunch, such as it is."
Nina asked anxiously whether there would not be another fox. Ayala also was anxious lest in accepting the proffered hospitality she should lose any of the delights of the day. But it was at length arranged that a quarter of an hour should be allowed before Tony took his hounds over to the Bragton coverts. Immediately Larry was off his horse, rushing into the house and ordering everyone about it to come forth with bread and cheese and sherry and beer. In spite of what he had said of his ruin it was known that Larry Twentyman was a warm man, and that no man in Rufford gave what he had to give with a fuller heart. His house was in the middle of the Rufford and Ufford hunting country, and the consumption there during the hunting months of bread and cheese, sherry and beer, must have been immense. Everyone seemed to be intimate with him, and all called for what they wanted as if they were on their own premises. On such occasions as these Larry was a proud man; for no one in those parts carried a lighter heart or was more fond of popularity.
The parlour inside was by no means big enough to hold the crowding guests, who therefore munched their bread and cheese and drank their beer round the front door, without dismounting from their horses; but Nina and Ayala with their friend the Colonel were taken inside to see Mrs. Twentyman and her baby. "Now, Larry, what sort of a run was it?" said the young mother. "Where did you find him, and what line did he take?"
"I'll tell you all about it when I come back; there are two young ladies for you now to look after." Then he introduced his wife, and the baby which was in her arms. "The little fellow is only six weeks old, and yet she wanted to come to the meet. She'd have been riding to hounds if I'd let her."
"Why not?" said Mrs. Twentyman. "At any rate I might have gone in the pony carriage and had baby with me."
"Only six weeks old!" said Nina, stooping down and kissing the child.
"He is a darling!" said Ayala. "I hope he'll go out hunting some day."
"He'll want to go six times a week if he's anything like his father," said Mrs. Twentyman.
"And seven times if he's like his mother," said Larry. Then again they mounted their nags, and trotted off across the high roads to the Bragton coverts. Mrs. Twentyman with her baby in her arms walked down to the gate at the high road and watched them with longing eyes, till Tony and the hounds were out of sight.
Nothing further in the way of hunting was done that day which requires to be recorded. They drew various coverts and found a fox or two, but the scent, which had been so strong in the morning, seemed to have gone, and the glory of the day was over. The two girls and the Colonel remained companions during the afternoon, and succeeded in making themselves merry over the incident of the brook. The Colonel was in truth well pleased that Larry Twentyman should have taken his place, though he probably would not have been gratified had he seen Captain Batsby assume his duties. It had been his delight to see the two girls ride, and he had been near enough to see them. He was one of those men who, though fond of hunting, take no special glory in it, and are devoid of the jealousy of riding. Not to have a good place in a run was no worse to him than to lose a game of billiards or a rubber of whist. Let the reader understand that this trait in his character is not mentioned with approbation. "Always to excel and to go ahead of everybody" should, the present writer thinks, be in the heart of every man who rides to hounds. There was in our Colonel a philosophical way of looking into the thing which perhaps became him as a man, but was deleterious to his character as a sportsman.
"I do so hope you've enjoyed yourself, Ayala!" he said, as he lifted her from her horse.
"Indeed, – indeed, I have!" said Ayala, not noticing the use of her Christian name. "I have been so happy, and I am so much obliged to you!"
Ayala had been a week at Stalham, and according to the understanding which had existed she should now have returned to Kingsbury Crescent. She had come for a week, and she had had her week. Oh, what a week it had been, so thoroughly happy, without a cloud, filled full with ecstatic pleasures! Jonathan Stubbs had become to her the pleasantest of friends. Lady Albury had covered her with caresses and little presents. Nina was the most perfect of friends. Sir Harry had never been cross, except for that one moment in the wood. And as for Sprite, – Sprite had nearly realised her idea of an Angel of Light. Oh, how happy she had been! She was to return on the Monday, having thus comprised two Sundays within her elongated week. She knew that her heaven was to be at an end; but she was grateful, and was determined in her gratitude to be happy and cheerful to the close. But early on this Sunday morning Colonel Stubbs spoke a word to Lady Albury. "That little girl is so thoroughly happy here. Cannot you prolong it for her just for another three days?"
"Is it to be for her, – or for Colonel Stubbs, who is enamoured of the little girl?" asked Lady Albury.
"For both," said the Colonel, rather gravely.
"Are you in earnest?"
"What do you call earnest? I do love to see a pretty creature enjoy herself thoroughly as she does. If you will make her stay till Thursday Albury will let her ride the little horse again at Star Cross on Wednesday."
"Of course she shall stay, – all the season if you wish it. She is indeed a happy girl if you are in earnest."
Then it was settled, and Lady Albury in her happiest manner informed Ayala that she was not to be allowed to take her departure till after she had ridden Sprite once again. "Sir Harry says that you have given the little horse quite a name, and that you must finish off his character for him at Star Cross." As was the heart of the Peri when the gate of Paradise was opened for her so was the heart of Ayala. There were to be four days, with the fourth as a hunting-day, before she need think of going! There was an eternity of bliss before her.
"But Aunt Margaret!" she said, not, however, doubting for a moment that she would stay. Who cares for a frowning aunt at the distance of an eternity. I fear that in the ecstacy of her joy she had forgotten the promise made, that she would always remember her aunt's goodness to her. "I will write a note to Mrs. Dosett, and make it all straight," said Lady Albury. The note was written, and, whether matters were straight or crooked at Kingsbury Crescent, Ayala remained at Albury.
Colonel Stubbs had thought about the matter, and determined that he was quite in earnest. He had, he told himself, enough for modest living, – for modest living without poverty. More would come to him when old General Stubbs, his uncle, should die. The general was already past seventy. What was the use of independence if he could not allow himself to have the girl whom he really loved? Had any human being so perfectly lovely as Ayala ever flashed before his eyes before? Was there ever a sweeter voice heard from a woman's mouth? And then all her little ways and motions, – her very tricks, – how full of charm they were! When she would open her eyes and nod her head, and pout with her lips, he would declare to himself that he could no longer live without her. And then every word that fell from her lips seemed to have something in it of pretty humour. In fact the Colonel was in love, and had now resolved that he would give way to his love in spite of his aunt, the Marchesa, and in spite of his own philosophy.