He felt by no means sure of success, but yet he thought that he might succeed. From the moment in which, as the reader may remember, he had accosted her at the ball, and desired her to dance with him in obedience to his aunt's behests, it had been understood by everyone around him that Ayala had liked him. They had become fast friends. Ayala allowed him to do many little things which, by some feminine instinct of her own, would have been put altogether beyond the reach of Captain Batsby. The Colonel knew all this, and knew at the same time that he should not trust to it only. But still he could not but trust to it in some degree. Lady Albury had told him that Ayala would be a happy girl if he were in earnest, and he himself was well aware of Ayala's dependent position, and of the discomforts of Kingsbury Crescent. Ayala had spoken quite openly to him of Kingsbury Crescent as to a confidential friend. But on all that he did not lean much as being in his favour. He could understand that such a girl as Ayala would not accept a husband merely with the object of avoiding domestic poverty. Little qualms of doubt came upon him as he remembered the nature of the girl, so that he confessed to himself that Lady Albury knew nothing about it. But, nevertheless, he hoped. His red hair and his ugly face had never yet stood against him among the women with whom he had lived. He had been taught by popularity to think himself a popular man; – and then Ayala had shown so many signs of her friendship!
There was shooting on Saturday, and he went out with the shooters, saying nothing to any one of an intended early return; but at three o'clock he was back at the house. Then he found that Ayala was out in the carriage, and he waited. He sat in the library pretending to read, till he heard the sounds of the carriage-wheels, and then he met the ladies in the hall. "Are they all home from shooting?" asked Lady Albury. The Colonel explained that no one was home but himself. He had missed three cock-pheasants running, and had then come away in disgust. "I am the most ignominious creature in existence," he said, laughing; "one day I tumble into a ditch three feet wide – "
"It was ten yards at least," said Nina, jealous as to the glory of her jump.
"And to-day I cannot hit a bird. I shall take to writing a book and leave the severer pursuit of sport to more enterprising persons." Then suddenly turning round he said to Ayala, "Are you good-natured enough to come and take a walk with me in the shrubbery?"
Ayala, taken somewhat by surprise at the request, looked up into Lady Albury's face. "Go with him, my dear, if you are not tired," said Lady Albury. "He deserves consolation after all his good deeds to you." Ayala still doubted. Though she was on terms of pleasant friendship with the man, yet she felt almost awestruck at this sudden request that she should walk alone with him. But not to do so, especially after Lady Albury's injunction, would have been peculiar.
"Are you afraid to come with me?" he said, as soon as they were out on the gravel together.
"Afraid! Oh, dear no, I should not be afraid to go anywhere with you, I think; only it seemed odd that you did not ask Nina too."
"Shall I tell you why?"
"Why was it?"
"Because I have something to say to you which I do not want Nina to hear just at this moment. And then I thought that we were such friends that you would not mind coming with me."
"Of course we are," said Ayala.
"I don't know why it should be so, but I seem to have known you years instead of days."
"Perhaps that is because you knew papa."
"More likely because I have learnt to know your papa's daughter."
"Do you mean Lucy?"
"I mean Ayala."
"That is saying the same thing twice over. You know me because you know me."
"Just that. How long do you suppose I have known that Mrs. Gregory, who sat opposite to us yesterday?"
"How can I tell?"
"Just fifteen years. I was going to Harrow when she came as a young girl to stay with my mother. Her people and my people had known each other for the last fifty years. Since that I have seen her constantly, and of course we are very intimate."
"I suppose so."
"I know as much about her after all that as if we had lived in two different hemispheres and couldn't speak a word of each other's language. There isn't a thought or a feeling in common between us. I ask after her husband and her children, and then tell her it's going to rain. She says something about the old General's health, and then there is an end of everything between us. When next we meet we do it all over again."
"How very uninteresting!" said Ayala.
"Very uninteresting. It is because there are so many Mrs. Gregorys about that I like to go down to Drumcaller and live by myself. Perhaps you're a Mrs. Gregory to somebody."
"Why should I be a Mrs. Gregory? I don't think I am at all like Mrs. Gregory."
"Not to me, Ayala." Now she heard the "Ayala," and felt something of what it meant. There had been moments at which she had almost disliked to hear him call her Miss Dormer; but now, – now she wished that he had not called her Ayala. She strove to assume a serious expression of face, but having done so she could not dare to turn it up towards him. The glance of her little anger, if there was any, fell only upon the ground. "It is because you are to me a creature so essentially different from Mrs. Gregory that I seem to know you so well. I never want to go to Drumcaller if you are near me; – or, if I think of Drumcaller, it is that I might be there with you."
"I am sure the place is very pretty, but I don't suppose I shall ever see it."
"Do you know about your sister and Mr. Hamel?"
"Yes," said Ayala, surprised. "She has told me all about it. How do you know?"
"He was staying at Drumcaller, – he and I together with no one else, – when he went over to ask her. I never saw a man so happy as when he came back from Glenbogie. He had got all that he wanted in the world."
"I do so love him because he loves her."
"And I love her, – because she loves you."
"It is not the same, you know," said Ayala, trying to think it all out.
"May I not love her?"
"He is to be my brother. That's why I love him. She can't be your sister." The poor girl, though she had tried to think it all out, had not thought very far.
"Can she not?" he said.
"Of course not. Lucy is to marry Mr. Hamel."
"And whom am I to marry?" Then she saw it all. "Ayala, – Ayala, – who is to be my wife?"
"I do not know," she said, – speaking with a gruff voice, but still in a whisper, with a manner altogether different, – thinking how well it would be that she should be taken at once back into the house.
"Do you not know whom I would fain have as my wife?" Then he felt that it behoved him to speak out plainly. He was already sure that she would not at once tell him that it should be as he would have it, – that she would not instantly throw herself into his arms. But he must speak plainly to her, and then fight his cause as best he might. "Ayala, I have asked you to come out with me that I might ask you to be my wife. It is that that I did not wish Nina to hear at once. If you will put out your hand and say that it shall be so, Nina and all the world shall know it. I shall be as proud then as Hamel, and as happy, – happier, I think. It seems to me that no one can love as I do now, Ayala; it has grown upon me from hour to hour as I have seen you. When I first took you away to that dance it was so already. Do you remember that night at the theatre, – when I had come away from everything and striven so hard that I might be near to you before you went back to your home? Ayala, I loved you then so dearly; – but not as I love you now. When I saw you riding away from me yesterday, when I could not get over the brook, I told myself that unless I might catch you at last, and have you all to myself, I could never again be happy. Do you remember when you stooped down and kissed that man's baby at the farm-house? Oh, Ayala, I thought then that if you would not be my wife, – if you would not be my wife, – I should never have wife, never should have baby, never should have home of my own." She walked on by his side, listening, but she had not a word to say to him. It had been easy enough to her to reject and to rebuke and to scorn Tom Tringle, when he had persisted in his suit; but she knew not with what words to reject this man who stood so high in her estimation, who was in many respects so perfect, whom she so thoroughly liked, – but whom, nevertheless, she must reject. He was not the Angel of Light, – could never be the Angel of Light. There was nothing there of the azure wings upon which should soar the all but celestial being to whom she could condescend to give herself and her love. He was pleasant, good, friendly, kind-hearted, – all that a friend or a brother should be; but he was not the Angel of Light. She was sure of that. She told herself that she was quite sure of it, as she walked beside him in silence along the path. "You know what I mean, Ayala, when I tell you that I love you," he continued. But still she made no answer. "I have seen at last the one human being with whom I feel that I can be happy to spend my life, and, having seen her, I ask her to be my wife. The hope has been dwelling with me and growing since I first met you. Shall it be a vain hope? Ayala, may I still hope?"
"No," she said, abruptly.
"Is that all?"
"It is all that I can say."
"Is that one 'no' to be the end of everything between us?"
"I don't know what else I ought to say to you, Colonel Stubbs."
"Do you mean that you can never love me?"
"Never," she said.
"That is a hard word, – and hardly friendly. Is there to be no more than one hard word between you and me? Though I did not venture to think that you could tell me that you loved me, I looked for something kinder, something gentler than that."
"From such a sharp and waspish word as 'no,'
To pluck the sting!"
Ayala did not know the lines I have quoted, but the idea conveyed in them was present clearly to her mind. She would fain have told him, had she known how to do so, that her heart was very gentle towards him, was very kind, gentle and kind as a sister's; – but that she could not love him, so as to become his wife. "You are not he, – not he, not that Angel of Light, which must come to me, radiant with poetry, beautiful to the eye, full of all excellences of art, lifted above the earth by the qualities of his mind, – such a one as must come to me if it be that I am ever to confess that I love. You are not he, and I cannot love you. But you shall be the next to him in my estimation, and you are already so dear to me that I would be tender to you, would be gentle, – if only I knew how." It was all there, clear enough in her mind, but she had not the words. "I don't know what it is that I ought to say," she exclaimed through her sobs.
"The truth, at any rate," he answered, sternly, "but not the truth, half and half, after the fashion of some young ladies. Do not think that you should palter with the truth either because it may not be palatable to me, or seem decorous to yourself. To my happiness this matter is all important, and you are something to my happiness, if only because I have risked it on your love. Tell me; – why cannot you love me?"
The altered tone of his voice, which now had in it something of severity, seemed to give her more power.
"It is because – " Then she paused.
"Because why? Out with it, whatever it is. If it be something that a man may remedy I will remedy it. Do not fear to hurt me. Is it because I am ugly? That I cannot remedy." She did not dare to tell him that it was so, but she looked up at him, not dissenting by any motion of her head. "Then God help me, for ugly I must remain."
"It is not that only."
"Is it because my name is Stubbs – Jonathan Stubbs?" Now she did assent, nodding her head at him. He had bade her tell him the truth, and she was so anxious to do as he bade her! "If it be so, Ayala, I must tell you that you are wrong, – wrong and foolish; that you are carried away by a feeling of romance, which is a false romance. Far be it from me to say that I could make you happy, but I am sure that your happiness cannot be made and cannot be marred by such accidents as that. Do you think that my means are not sufficient?"
"No; – no," she cried; "I know nothing of your means. If I could love you I would not condescend to ask, – even to hear."
"There is no other man, I think?"
"There is no other man."
"But your imagination has depicted to you something grander than I am," – then she assented quickly, turning round and nodding her head to him, – "some one who shall better respond to that spirit of poetry which is within you?" Again she nodded her head approvingly, as though to assure him that now he knew the whole truth. "Then, Ayala, I must strive to soar till I can approach your dreams. But, if you dare to desire things which are really grand, do not allow yourself to be mean at the same time. Do not let the sound of a name move you, or I shall not believe in your aspirations. Now shall I take you back to the house?"
Back to the house they went, and there was not another word spoken between them. By those last words of his she had felt herself to be rebuked. If it were possible that he could ask her again whether that sound, Jonathan Stubbs, had anything to do with it, she would let him know now, by some signal, that she no longer found a barrier in the name. But there were other barriers, – barriers which he himself had not pretended to call vain. As to his ugliness, that he had confessed he could not remedy; calling on God to pity him because he was so. And as for that something grander which he had described, and for which her soul sighed, he had simply said that he would seek for it. She was sure that he would not find it. It was not to such as he that the something grander, – which was to be the peculiar attribute of the Angel of Light, – could be accorded. But he had owned that the something grander might exist.
The Colonel and Ayala returned to the house without a word. When they were passing through the hall she turned to go at once up the stairs to her own room. As she did so he put out his hand to her, and she took it. But she passed on without speaking, and when she was alone she considered it over all in her own mind. There could be no doubt that she was right. Of that she was quite sure. It was certainly a fixed law that a girl should not marry a man unless she loved him. She did not love this man, and therefore she ought not to marry him. But there were some qualms at her heart as to the possible reality of the image which she had created for her own idolatry. And she had been wounded when he told her that she should not allow herself to be mean amidst her soarings. She had been wounded, and yet she knew that he had been right. He had intended to teach her the same lesson when he told her the absurd story of the woman who had been flung out of the window. She could not love him; but that name of his should never again be a reason for not doing so. Let the Angel of Light come to her with his necessary angelic qualities, and no want of euphony in a sound should be a barrier to him. Nor in truth could any outside appearance be an attribute of angelic light. The Angel of Light might be there even with red hair. Something as to the truth of this also came across her, though the Colonel had not rebuked her on that head.
But how should she carry herself now during the four days which remained to her at Stalham Park? All the loveliness seemed to depart from her prospect. She would hardly know how to open her mouth before her late friend. She suspected that Lady Albury knew with what purpose the Colonel had taken her out into the shrubbery, and she would not dare to look Lady Albury in the face. How should she answer Nina if Nina were to ask her questions about the walk. The hunt for next Wednesday was no longer a delight to which she could look forward. How would it be possible that Colonel Stubbs should direct her now as to her riding, and instruct her as to her conduct in the hunting-field? It would be better for her that she should return at once to Kingsbury Crescent.
As she thought of this there did come upon her a reflection that had she been able to accept Colonel Stubbs's offer there would have been an end for ever to the miseries of her aunt's house. She would have been lifted at once into the mode of life in which the man lived. Instead of being a stranger admitted by special grace into such an Elysium as that of Stalham Park, she would become one of those to whom such an Elysium belonged almost of right. By her own gifts she would have won her way into that upper and brighter life which seemed to her to be all smiles and all joy. As to his income she thought nothing and cared nothing. He lived with men who had horses and carriages, and who spent their time in pleasurable pursuits. And she would live amidst ladies who were always arrayed in bright garments, who, too, had horses and carriages at their command, and were never troubled by those sordid cares which made life at Kingsbury Crescent so sad and tedious. One little word would have done it all for her, would have enabled her to take the step by which she would be placed among the bright ones of the earth.
But the remembrance of all this only made her firmer in her resolution. If there was any law of right and wrong fixed absolutely in her bosom, it was this, – that no question of happiness or unhappiness, of suffering or joy, would affect her duty to the Angel of Light. She owed herself to him should he come to seek her. She owed herself to him no less, even should he fail to come. And she owed herself equally whether he should be rich or poor. As she was fortifying herself with these assurances, Nina came to ask her whether she would not come down to tea. Ayala pleaded headache, and said that she would rest till dinner. "Has anything happened?" asked Nina. Ayala simply begged that she might be asked no questions then, because her head was aching. "If you do not tell me everything, I shall think you are no true friend," said Nina, as she left the room.
As evening drew on she dressed for dinner, and went down into the drawing-room. In doing so it was necessary to pass through the billiard-room, and there she found Colonel Stubbs, knocking about the balls. "Are you dressed for dinner?" he exclaimed; "I haven't begun to think of it yet, and Sir Harry hates a man when he comes in late. That wretch Batsby has beaten me four games." With that he rushed off, putting down the cue with a rattle, and seeming to Ayala to have recovered altogether from the late prostration of his spirits.
In the drawing-room Ayala was for a few minutes alone, and then, as she was glad to see, three or four ladies all came in at once, so that no question could be asked her by Lady Albury. They went into dinner without the Colonel, who was in truth late, and she was taken in by Mr. Gosling, whose pretty little wife was just opposite to her. On the other side of her sat Lord Rufford, who had come to Stalham with his wife for a day or two, and who immediately began to congratulate her on the performance of the day before. "I am told you jumped the Cranbury Brook," he said. "I should as soon think of jumping the Serpentine."
"I did it because somebody told me."
"Ah," said Lord Rufford, with a sigh, "there is nothing like ignorance, innocence, and youth combined. But why didn't Colonel Stubbs get over after you?"
"Because Colonel Stubbs couldn't," said that gentleman, as he took his seat in the vacant chair.
"It may be possible," said Sir Harry, "that a gentleman should not be able to jump over Cranbury Brook; but any gentleman, if he will take a little trouble, may come down in time for dinner."
"Now that I have been duly snubbed right and left," said the Colonel, "perhaps I may eat my soup."
Ayala, who had expected she hardly knew what further troubles, and who had almost feared that nobody would speak to her because she had misbehaved herself, endeavoured to take heart of grace when she found that all around her, including the Colonel himself, were as pleasant as ever. She had fancied that Lady Albury had looked at her specially when Colonel Stubbs took his seat, and she had specially noticed the fact that his chair had not been next her own. These little matters she was aware Lady Albury managed herself, and was aware also that in accordance with the due rotation of things she and the Colonel should have been placed together. She was glad that it was not so, but at the same time she was confident that Lady Albury knew something of what had passed between herself and her suitor. The evening, however, went off easily, and nothing occurred to disturb her except that the Colonel had called her by her Christian name, when as usual he brought to her a cup of tea in the drawing-room. Oh, that he would continue to do so, and yet not demand from her more than their old friendship!