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.
"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.
"I have had a letter from Lady Albury," said Aunt Margaret, almost as soon as Ayala had taken off her hat and cloak.
"Yes, I know, Aunt Margaret. She wrote to ask that I might stay for four more days. I hope it was not wrong."
"I have had another letter since that, on Monday, about it; I have determined to show it you. There it is. You had better read it by yourself, and I will come to you again in half an hour." Then, very solemnly, but with no trace of ill-humour, Mrs. Dosett left the room. There was something in her tone and gait so exceedingly solemn that Ayala was almost frightened. Of course, the letter must be about Colonel Stubbs, and, of course, the writer of it would find fault with her. She was conscious that she was adding one to her terribly long list of sins in not consenting to marry Colonel Stubbs. It was her misfortune that all her friends found fault with everything that she did. Among them there was not one, not even Nina, who fully sympathised with her. Not even to Lucy could she expatiate with a certainty of sympathy in regard to the Angel of Light. And now, though her aunt was apparently not angry, – only solemn, – she felt already sure that she was to be told that it was her duty to marry Colonel Stubbs. It was only the other day that her aunt was preaching to her as to the propriety of marrying her cousin Tom. It seemed, she said to herself, that people thought that a girl was bound to marry any man who could provide a house for her, and bread to eat, and clothes to wear. All this passed through her mind as she slowly drew Lady Albury's letter from the envelope and prepared to read it. The letter was as follows: —
Stalham, Monday, 18th November, 18 – .
Your niece will return to you, as you request, on Thursday, but before she reaches you I think it my duty to inform you of a little circumstance which has occurred here. My cousin, Colonel Jonathan Stubbs, who is also the nephew of the Marchesa Baldoni, has made Miss Dormer an offer. I am bound to add that I did not think it improbable that it would be so, when I called on your husband, and begged him to allow your niece to come to us. I did not then know my cousin's intention as a fact. I doubt whether he knew it himself; but from what I had heard I thought it probable, and, as I conceive that any young lady would be fortunate in becoming my cousin's wife, I had no scruple.
He has proposed to her, and she has rejected him. He has set his heart upon the matter, and I am most anxious that he should succeed, because I know him to be a man who will not easily brook disappointment where he has set his heart. Of all men I know he is the most steadfast in his purpose.
I took the liberty of speaking to your niece on the subject, and am disposed to think that she is deferred by some feeling of foolish romance, partly because she does not like the name, partly because my cousin is not a handsome man in a girl's eyes; – more probably, however, she has built up to herself some poetic fiction, and dreams of she knows not what. If it be so, it is a pity that she should lose an opportunity of settling herself well and happily in life. She gave as a reason that she did not love him. My experience is not so long as yours, perhaps, but such as I have has taught me to think that a wife will love her husband when she finds herself used well at all points. Mercenary marriages are, of course, bad: but it is a pity, I think, that a girl, such as your niece, should lose the chance of so much happiness by a freak of romance.
Colonel Stubbs, who is only twenty-eight years of age, has a staff appointment at Aldershot. He has private means of his own, on which alone he would be justified in marrying. On the death of his uncle, General Stubbs, he will inherit a considerable accession of fortune. He is not, of course, a rich man; but he has ample for the wants of a family. In all other good gifts, temper, manliness, truth, and tenderness, I know no one to excel him. I should trust any young friend of my own into his hands with perfect safety.
I have thought it right to tell you this. You will use your own judgment in saying what you think fit to your niece. Should she be made to understand that her own immediate friends approve of the offer, she would probably be induced to accept it. I have not heard my cousin say what may be his future plans. I think it possible that, as he is quite in earnest, he will not take one repulse. Should he ask again, I hope that your niece may receive him with altered views.Pray believe me to be, my dear Madam,Yours sincerely,Rosaline Albury.
Ayala read the letter twice over before her aunt returned to her, and, as she read it, felt something of a feeling of renewed kindness come upon her in reference to the writer of it; – not that she was in the least changed in her own resolution, but that she liked Lady Albury for wishing to change her. The reasons given, however, were altogether impotent with her. Colonel Stubbs had the means of keeping a wife! If that were a reason then also ought she to marry her cousin, Tom Tringle. Colonel Stubbs was good and true; but so also very probably was Tom Tringle. She would not compare the two men. She knew that her cousin Tom was altogether distasteful to her, while she took delight in the companionship of the Colonel. But the reasons for marrying one were to her thinking as strong as for marrying the other. There could be only one valid excuse for marriage, – that of adoring the man; – and she was quite sure that she did not adore Colonel Jonathan Stubbs. Lady Albury had said in her letter, that a girl would be sure to love a man who treated her well after marriage; but that would not suffice for her. Were she to marry at all, it would be necessary that she should love the man before her marriage.
"Have you read the letter, my dear?" said Mrs. Dosett, as she entered the room and closed the door carefully behind her. She spoke almost in a whisper, and seemed to be altogether changed by the magnitude of the occasion.
"Yes, Aunt Margaret, I have read it."
"I suppose it is true?"
"True! It is true in part."
"You did meet this Colonel Stubbs?"
"Oh, yes; I met him."
"And you had met him before?"
"Yes, Aunt Margaret. He used to come to Brook Street. He is the Marchesa's nephew."
"Did he – " This question Aunt Margaret asked in a very low whisper, and her most solemn voice. "Did he make love to you in Brook Street?"
"No," said Ayala, sharply.
"Not at all?"
"Not at all. I never thought of such a thing. I never dreamed of such a thing when he began talking to me out in the woods at Stalham on Saturday."
"Had you been – been on friendly terms with him?"
"Very friendly terms. We were quite friends, and used to talk about all manner of things. I was very fond of him, and never afraid of anything that he said to me. He was Nina's cousin and seemed almost to be my cousin too."
"Then you do like him?"
"Of course I do. Everybody must like him. But that is no reason why I should want to marry him."
Upon this Mrs. Dosett sat silent for awhile turning the great matter over in her thoughts. It was quite clear to her that every word which Ayala had spoken was true; and probable also that Lady Albury's words were true. In her inmost thoughts she regarded Ayala as a fool. Here was a girl who had not a shilling of her own, who was simply a burden on relatives whom she did not especially love, who was doomed to a life which was essentially distasteful to her, – for all this in respect to herself and her house Mrs. Dosett had sense enough to acknowledge, – who seemed devoted to the society of rich and gay people, and yet would not take the opportunities that were offered her of escaping what she disliked and going to that which she loved! Two offers had now been made to her, both of them thoroughly eligible, to neither of which would objection have been made by any of the persons concerned. Sir Thomas had shown himself to be absolutely anxious for the success of his son. And now it seemed that the grand relations of this Colonel Stubbs were in favour of the match. What it was in Ayala that entitled her to such promotion Mrs. Dosett did not quite perceive. To her eyes her niece was a fantastic girl, pretty indeed, but not endowed with that regular tranquil beauty which she thought to be of all feminine graces the most attractive. Why Tom Tringle should have been so deeply smitten with Ayala had been a marvel to her; and now this story of Colonel Stubbs was a greater marvel. "Ayala," she said, "you ought to think better of it."
"Think better of what, Aunt Margaret?"
"You have seen what this Lady Albury says about her cousin, Colonel Stubbs."
"What has that to do with it?"
"You believe what she says? If so why should you not accept him?"
"Because I can't," said Ayala.
"Have you any idea what is to become of your future life?" said Mrs. Dosett, very gravely.
"Not in the least," said Ayala. But that was a fib, because she had an idea that in the fullness of time it would be her heavenly fate to put her hand into that of the Angel of Light.
"Gentlemen won't come running after you always, my dear."
This was almost as bad as being told by her Aunt Emmeline that she had encouraged her cousin Tom. "It's a great shame to say that. I don't want anybody to run after me. I never did."
"No, my dear; no. I don't think that you ever did." Mrs. Dosett, who was justice itself, did acknowledge to herself that of any such fault as that suggested, Ayala was innocent. Her fault was quite in the other direction, and consisted of an unwillingness to settle herself and to free her relations of the burden of maintaining her when proper opportunities arose for doing so. "I only want to explain to you that people must, – must, – must make their hay while the sun shines. You are young now."
"I am not one-and-twenty yet," said Ayala, proudly.
"One-and-twenty is a very good time for a girl to marry, – that is to say if a proper sort of gentleman asks her."
"I don't think I ought to be scolded because they don't seem to me to be the proper sort. I don't want anybody to come. Nobody ought to be talked to about it at all. If I cared about any one that you or Uncle Reginald did not approve, then you might talk to me. But I don't think that anything ought to be said about anybody unless I like him myself." So the conversation was over, and Mrs. Dosett felt that she had been entirely vanquished.