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The next morning was Sunday, and they all went to church. It was a law at Stalham that everyone should go to church on Sunday morning. Sir Harry himself, who was not supposed to be a peculiarly religious man, was always angry when any male guest did not show himself in the enormous family pew. "I call it d – indecent," he has been heard to say. But nobody was expected to go twice, – and consequently nobody ever did go twice. Lunch was protracted later than usual. The men would roam about the grounds with cigars in their mouths, and ladies would take to reading in their own rooms, in following which occupation they would spend a considerable part of the afternoon asleep. On this afternoon Lady Albury did not go to sleep, but contrived to get Ayala alone upstairs into her little sitting-room. "Ayala," she said, with something between a smile and a frown, "I am afraid I am going to be angry with you."
"Please don't be angry, Lady Albury."
"If I am right in what I surmise, you had an offer made to you yesterday which ought to satisfy the heart of almost any girl in England." Here she paused, but Ayala had not a word to say for herself. "If it was so, the best man I know asked you to share his fortune with him."
"Has he told you?"
"But he did?"
"I shall not tell," said Ayala, proudly.
"I know he did. I knew that it was his intention before. Are you aware what kind of man is my cousin, Jonathan Stubbs? Has it occurred to you that in truth and gallantry, in honour, honesty, courage, and real tenderness, he is so perfect as to be quite unlike to the crowd of men you see?"
"I do know that he is good," said Ayala.
"Good! Where will you find any one good like him? Compare him to the other men around him, and then say whether he is good! Can it be possible that you should refuse the love of such a man as that?"
"I don't think I ought to be made to talk about it," said Ayala, hesitating.
"My dear, it is for your own sake and for his. When you go away from here it may be so difficult for him to see you again."
"I don't suppose he will ever want," said Ayala.
"It is sufficient that he wants it now. What better can you expect for yourself?"
"I expect nothing," said Ayala, proudly. "I have got nothing, and I expect nothing."
"He will give you everything, simply because he loves you. My dear, I should not take the trouble to tell you all this, did I not know that he is a man who ought to be accepted when he asks such a request as that. Your happiness would be safe in his hands." She paused, but Ayala had not a word to say. "And he is not a man likely to renew such a request. He is too proud for that. I can conceive no possible reason for such a refusal unless it be that you are engaged. If there be some one else, then of course there must be an end of it."
"There is no one else."
"Then, my dear, with your prospects it is sheer folly. When the General dies he will have over two thousand a year."
"As if that had anything to do with it!" said Ayala, holding herself aloft in her wrath, and throwing angry glances at the lady.
"It is what I call romance," said Lady Albury."Romance can never make you happy."
"At any rate it is not riches. What you call romance may be what I like best. At any rate if I do not love Colonel Stubbs I am sure I ought not to marry him; – and I won't."
After this there was nothing further to be said. Ayala thought that she would be turned out of the room, – almost out of the house, in disgrace. But Lady Albury, who was simply playing her part, was not in the least angry. "Well, my dear," she said, "pray, – pray, think better of it. I am in earnest, of course, because of my cousin, – because he seems to have put his heart upon it. He is just the man to be absolutely in love when he is in love. But I would not speak as I do unless I were sure that he would make you happy. My cousin Jonathan is to me the finest hero that I know. When a man is a hero he shouldn't be broken-hearted for want of a woman's smiles, – should he?"
"She ought not to smile unless she loves him," said Ayala, as she left the room.
The Monday and Tuesday went very quietly. Lady Albury said nothing more on the great subject, and the Colonel behaved himself exactly as though there had been no word of love at all. There was nothing special said about the Wednesday's hunt through the two days, till Ayala almost thought that there would be no hunt for her. Nor, indeed, did she much wish for it. It had been the Colonel who had instigated her to deeds of daring, and under his sanction that she had ventured to ride. She would hardly know how to go through the Wednesday, – whether still to trust him, or whether to hold herself aloof from him. When nothing was said on the subject till late on the evening of the Tuesday, she had almost resolved that she would not put on her habit when the morning came. But just as she was about to leave the drawing-room with her bed-candle Colonel Stubbs came to her. "Most of us ride to the meet to-morrow," he said; "but you and Nina shall be taken in the waggonette so as to save you a little. It is all arranged." She bowed and thanked him, going to bed almost sorry that it should have been so settled. When the morning came Nina could not ride. She had hurt her foot, and, coming early into Ayala's room, declared with tears that she could not go. "Then neither shall I," said Ayala, who was at that moment preparing to put on her habit.
"But you must. It is all settled, and Sir Harry would be offended if you did not go. What has Jonathan done that you should refuse to ride with him because I am lame?"
"Nothing," said Ayala.
"Oh, Ayala, do tell me. I should tell you everything. Of course you must hunt whatever it is. Even though he should have offered and you refused him, of course you must go."
"Must I?" said Ayala.
"Then you have refused him?"
"I have. Oh, Nina, pray do not speak of it. Do not think of it if you can help it. Why should everything be disturbed because I have been a fool?"
"Then you think you have been a fool?"
"Other people think so; but if so I shall at any rate be constant to my folly. What I mean is, that it has been done, and should be passed over as done with. I am quite sure that I ought not to be scolded; but Lady Albury did scold me." Then they went down together to breakfast, Ayala having prepared herself properly for the hunting-field.
In the waggonette there were with her Lady Albury, Mrs. Gosling, and Nina, who was not prevented by her lameness from going to the meet. The gentlemen all rode, so that there was no immediate difficulty as to Colonel Stubbs. But when she had been put on her horse by his assistance and found herself compelled to ride away from the carriage, apparently under his especial guidance, her heart misgave her, and she thoroughly wished that she was at home in the Crescent. Though she was specially under his guidance there were at first others close around her, and, while they were on the road going to the covert which they were to draw, conversation was kept up so that it was not necessary for her to speak; – but what should she do when she should find herself alone with him as would certainly soon be the case? It soon was the case. The hounds were at work in a large wood in which she was told they might possibly pass the best part of the day, and it was not long before the men had dispersed themselves, some on this side some on that, and she found herself with no one near her but the Colonel. "Ayala," he said, "of course you know that it is my duty to look after you, and to do it better if I can than I did on Friday."
"I understand," she said.
"Do not let any remembrance of that walk on Saturday interfere with your happiness to-day. Who knows when you may be out hunting again?"
"Never!" she said; "I don't suppose I shall ever hunt again."
"Carpe diem," he said, laughing. "Do you know what 'carpe diem' means?"
"It is Latin perhaps."
"Yes; and therefore you are not supposed to understand it. This is what it means. As an hour for joy has come, do not let any trouble interfere with it. Let it all be, for this day at least, as though there had been no walk in the Stalham Woods. There is Larry Twentyman. If I break down as I did on Friday you may always trust to him. Larry and you are old friends now."
"Carpe diem," she said to herself. "Oh, yes; if it were only possible. How is one to 'carpe diem' with one's heart full of troubles?" And it was the less possible because this man whom she had rejected was so anxious to do everything for her happiness. Lady Albury had told her that he was a hero, – that he was perfect in honour, honesty, and gallantry; and she felt inclined to own that Lady Albury was almost right. Yet, – yet how far was he from that image of manly perfection which her daily thoughts had created for her! Could she have found an appropriate word with which to thank him she would have done so; but there was no such word, and Larry Twentyman was now with them, taking off his hat and overflowing with compliments. "Oh, Miss Dormer, I am so delighted to see you out again."
"How is the baby, Mr. Twentyman?"
"Brisk as a bee, and hungry as a hunter."
"And how is Mrs. Twentyman?"
"Brisker and hungrier than the baby. What do you think of the day, Colonel?"
"A very good sort of day, Twentyman, if we were anywhere out of these big woods." Larry shook his head solemnly. The Mudcombe Woods in which they were now at work had been known to occupy Tony Tappett and his whole pack from eleven o'clock till the dusk of evening. "We've got to draw them, of course," continued the Colonel. Then Mr. Twentyman discoursed at some length on the excellence of Mudcombe Woods. What would any county be without a nursery for young foxes? Gorse-coverts, hedge-rows, and little spinneys would be of no avail unless there were some grandly wild domain in which maternal and paternal foxes could roam in comparative security. All this was just as Ayala would have it, because it enabled her to ask questions, and saved her from subjects which might be painful to her.
The day, in truth, was not propitious to hunting even. Foxes were found in plenty, and two of them were killed within the recesses of the wood; but on no occasion did they run a mile into the open. For Ayala it was very well, because she was galloping hither and thither, and because before the day was over she found herself able to talk to the Colonel in her wonted manner; but there was no great glory for her as had been the glory of Little Cranbury Brook.
On the next morning she was taken back to London and handed over to her aunt in Kingsbury Crescent without another word having been spoken by Colonel Stubbs in reference to his love.