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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.She certainly was not tired, and had such a walk come naturally it would have been an additional pleasure to her; but now, though she went she hesitated, and showed her hesitation.
"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."
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.