"And now the Adriatic's free to wed another," said Houston to himself, as he put himself into a cab, and had himself carried to his club. There he wrote that valedictory letter to Gertrude which is given at the end of the last chapter. Had he reason to complain of his fate, or to rejoice? He had looked the question of an establishment full in the face, – an establishment to be created by Sir Thomas Tringle's money, to be shared with Sir Thomas Tringle's daughter, and had made up his mind to accept it, although the prospects were not, as he told himself, "altogether rosy." When he first made up his mind to marry Gertrude, – on condition that Gertrude should bring with her, at any rate, not less than three thousand a-year, – he was quite aware that he would have to give up all his old ways of life, and all his little pleasures. He would become son-in-law to Sir Thomas Tringle, with a comfortable house to live in; with plenty to eat and drink, and, probably, a horse or two to ride. If he could manage things at their best, perhaps he might be able to settle himself at Pau, or some other place of the kind, so as to be as far away as possible from Tringle influences. But his little dinners at one club, his little rubbers of whist at the other club, his evenings at the opera, the pleasant smiles of the ladies, whom he loved in a general way, – these would be done with for ever! Earn his own bread! Why, he was going to earn his bread, and that in a most disagreeable manner. He would set up an establishment, not because such an establishment would have any charms for him, but because he was compelled by lack of money to make some change in his present manner of life. And yet the time had been when he had looked forward to a marriage as the happiest thing that could befall him. As far as his nature could love, he had loved Imogene Docimer. There had come a glimpse upon him of something better than the little dinners and the little rubbers. There had been a prospect of an income, – not ample, as would have been that forthcoming from Sir Thomas, – but sufficient for a sweet and modest home, in which he thought that it would have sufficed for his happiness to paint a few pictures, and read a few books, and to love his wife and children. Even as to that there had been a doubt. There was a regret as to the charms of London life. But, nevertheless, he had made up his mind, – and she, without any doubt, had made up hers. Then that wicked uncle had died, and was found to have expended on his own pursuits the money which was to have been left to his nephew. Upon that there was an explanation between Frank and Imogene; and it was agreed that their engagement should be over, while a doubtful and dangerous friendship was to be encouraged between them.
Such was the condition of things when Frank first met Gertrude Tringle at Rome, now considerably more than twelve months since. When Gertrude had first received his proposition favourably he had written to Imogene a letter in that drolling spirit common to him, in which he declared his purpose; – or rather, not his purpose, but his untoward fate, should the gods be unkind to him.
Nevertheless, he persevered, – not with the best success, as has already been told. Now, as he left the house in Lombard Street, and wrote what was intended to be his last epistle to Gertrude, he was driven again to think of Miss Docimer. Indeed, he had in his pocket, as he sat at his club, a little note which he had lately received from that lady, which, in truth, had disturbed him much when he made his last futile efforts at Merle Park and in Lombard Street. The little note was as follows; —
One little friendly word in spite of our storm on the Tyrolese hill-side! If Miss Tringle is to be the arbiter of your fate; – why, then, let there be an end of everything between us. I should not care to be called upon to receive such a Mrs. Frank Houston as a dear friend. But if Tringle p?re should at the last moment prove hard-hearted, then let me see you again. – Yours,I.
With this letter in his pocket he had gone down to Merle Park, determined to put an end to the Tringle affair in one way or the other. His duty, as he had planned it to himself, would not be altered by Imogene's letter; but if that duty should become impracticable, why, then, it would be open to him to consider whatever Imogene might have to say to him.
The Docimers were now in London, where it was their custom to live during six months of the year; but Houston had not been at their house since he had parted from them in the Tyrol. He had spent but little of his time in London since the autumn, and, when there, had not been anxious to see people who had, at any rate, treated him somewhat roughly. But now it would be necessary that he should answer Imogene's letter. What should be the nature of such answer he certainly had not as yet decided, nor could he have decided before those very convincing assurances of Sir Thomas Tringle. That matter was at any rate over, and now the "Adriatic might wed another," – if the Adriatic thought well to do so. The matter, however, was one which required a good deal of consideration. He gave to it ten minutes of intense thought, during which he consumed a cup of coffee and a cigarette; and then, throwing away the burnt end of the paper, he hurried into the morning-room, and wrote to the lady as follows; —
You will not have to press to your bosom as my wife the second daughter of Sir Thomas Tringle, Bart. The high honour of that alliance has at last been refused by him in very plain language. Had she become Mrs. Frank Houston, I do not doubt but you would have done your duty to your own cousin. That lot, however, has not been written for me in the Book of Fates. The father is persistent in looking upon me as an idle profligate adventurer; and though he has been kind enough to hint more than once that it might be possible for me to achieve the young lady, he has succeeded in convincing me that I never should achieve anything beyond the barren possession of her beauty. A wife and family on my present very moderate income would be burdensome; and, therefore, with infinite regrets, I have bade adieu to Miss Tringle.
I have not hitherto been to see either you or your brother or Mrs. Docimer because I have been altogether unaware whether you or your brother or Mrs. Docimer would be glad to see me. As you say yourself, there was a storm on the Tyrolese hill-side, – in which there was more than one wind blowing at the same time. I do not find fault with anybody, – perhaps a storm was needed to clear the air. But I hate storms. I do not pretend to be a very grand fellow, but I do endeavour not to be disagreeable. Your brother, if you remember, was a little hard. But, in truth, I say this only to account for my apparent incivility.
And, perhaps, with another object; – to gain a little time before I plunge into the stern necessity of answering all that you say in your very comprehensive letter of five lines. The first four lines I have answered. There will be no such Mrs. Frank Houston as that suggested. And then, as to the last line. Of course, you will see me again, and that very speedily. So it would seem that the whole letter is answered.
But yet it is not answered. There is so much in it that whole sheets would not answer it. A quire of note-paper stuffed full would hardly contain all that I might find to say in answer to it, – on one side and the other. Nay, I might fill as many reams of folio as are required for a three-volume novel. And then I might call it by one of two names, "The Doubts of Frank Houston," or "The Constancy of Imogene Docimer," – as I should at last bring my story to one ending or the other. But the novel would contain that fault which is so prevalent in the novels of the present day. The hero would be a very namby-mamby sort of a fellow, whereas the heroine would be too perfect for human nature.
The hero would be always repeating to himself a certain line out of a Latin poet, which, of all lines, is the most heart-breaking; —
The better course I see and know; —
The worser one is where I go.
But then in novels the most indifferent hero comes out right at last. Some god comes out of a theatrical cloud and leaves the poor devil ten thousand a-year and a title. He isn't much of a hero when he does go right under such inducements, but he suffices for the plot, and everything is rose-coloured. I would be virtuous at a much cheaper rate; – if only a young man with his family might have enough to eat and drink. What is your idea of the lowest income at which a prudent, – say not idiotically-quixotic hero, – might safely venture to be heroic?
Now I have written to you a long letter, and think that I have indicated to you the true state of my feelings. Whatever may turn up I do not think I shall go fortune-hunting again. If half-a-million in female hands were to throw itself at my head, there is no saying whether I might not yield. But I do not think that I shall again make inquiry as to the amount of booty supposed to be within the walls of a city, and then sit down to besiege the city with regular lines of approach. It is a disgusting piece of work. I do not say but what I can lie, and did lie foully on the last siege operation; but I do not like it. And then to be told that one is unmanly by the father, and a coward by the young lady, as occurred to me in this affair, is disheartening. They were both right, though I repudiated their assertions. This might be borne as a prelude to success; but, as part of a failure, it is disgusting. At the present moment I am considering what economy might effect as to a future bachelor life, and am meditating to begin with a couple of mutton chops and half-a-pint of sherry for my dinner to-day. I know I shall break down and have a woodcock and some champagne.
I will come to you about three on Sunday. If you can manage that your brother should go out and make his calls, and your sister attend divine service in the afternoon, it would be a comfort.Yours always,F. Houston.
It was a long rambling letter, without a word in it of solid clearly-expressed meaning; but Imogene, as she read it, understood very well its real purport. She understood more than its purport, for she could see by it, – more clearly than the writer did himself, – how far her influence over the man had been restored, and how far she might be able to restore it. But was it well that she should regain her influence? Her influence regained would simply mean a renewed engagement. No doubt the storm on the hill-side had come from the violence of true love on her part! No doubt her heart had been outraged by the idea that he should give himself up to another woman after all that had passed between them. She had been devoted to him altogether; but yet she had been taught by him to regard her love as a passion which of its nature contained something of the ridiculous. He had never ceased gently to laugh at himself, even in her presence, because he had subjected himself to her attraction. She had caught up the same spirit, – or at any rate the expression of spirit, – and, deceived by that, he had thought that to relieve herself from the burden of her love would be as easy to her as to him. In making this mistake he had been ignorant of the intrinsic difference in the nature of a man's and of a woman's heart, and had been unaware that that, which to a man at his best can only be a part of his interest in his life's concerns, will to a woman be everything. She had attempted to follow his lead when it did not seem that by doing so she would lose anything. But when the moment of trial came she had not in truth followed his lead at all. She made the attempt, and in making the attempt gave him her permission to go from her; but when she realised the fact that he was gone, – or going, – then she broke down utterly. Then there came these contentions between her and her brother, and that storm on the hill-side.
After that she passed some months of wretchedness. There was no possibility for her to droll away her love. She had taught herself to love the man whether he were good or whether he were bad, – whether he were strong-hearted or whether he were fickle, – and the thing was there present to her, either as a permanent blessing, or, much more probably, a permanent curse. As the months went on she learned, though she never saw Frank himself, that his purpose of marrying Gertrude Tringle was not likely to be carried out. Then at last she wrote that comprehensive letter of five lines, – as Houston had called it. It had been intended to be comprehensive, and did, in fact, contain much more than it seemed to say. "If you can bring yourself to return to me, and to endure whatever inconveniences may be incidental to your doing so, I hereby declare that I will do the same; and I declare also that I can find for myself no other content in the world except what may come to me from such an agreement between us." It was this that she said in that last line, in which she had begged him to come to her, if at the last moment "Tringle p?re" should prove to be hard-hearted. All troubles of poverty, all the lingering annoyance of waiting, all her possible doubts as to his future want of persistency, would be preferable to the great loss which she found herself unable to endure.
Yes; it would be very well that both her brother and her sister-in-law should be absent when he came to her. To neither of them had she said a word of her last correspondence; – to neither of them a word of her renewed hopes. For the objections which might be raised by either of them would she care little if she could succeed with Frank. But while that success was still doubtful it would be well to get at any rate the assistance of her sister-in-law. On the Sunday afternoon Mr. Docimer would certainly be away from the house. It was his custom to go off among his friends almost immediately after lunch, and his absence might be counted on as assured. But with his wife it was different. That project of sending her to church was quite out of the question. Mrs. Docimer generally went to church of a Sunday morning, and then always considered herself to have performed the duties of the day. Nor did Imogene like the idea of this appointment with her lover without a word spoken about it to her sister-in-law. "Mary," she said, "Frank Houston is coming here on Sunday."
"Frank!" exclaimed Mrs. Docimer. "I thought we were to consider ourselves as altogether separated from that fortunate youth."
"I don't see why."
"Well; he left us not with the kindest possible feelings in the Tyrol; and he has allowed ever so many months to pass by without coming to see us. I asked Mudbury whether we should have him to dinner one day last week, and he said it would be better to let him go his own way."
"Nevertheless, he is coming here on Sunday."
"Has he written to you?"
"Yes, he has written to me, – in answer to a line from me. I told him that I wished to see him."
"Was that wise?"
"Wise or not, I did so."
"Why should you wish to see him?"
"Am I to tell you the truth or a lie?"
"Not a lie, certainly. I will not ask for the truth if the truth be unpalatable to you."
"It is unpalatable; – but yet I might as well tell it you. I wrote to ask him to come and see me, because I love him so dearly."
"It is the truth."
"Did you tell him so?"
"No; I told him nothing. I merely said, that, if this match was over between him and that girl of Sir Thomas Tringle, then he might come and see me again. That was all that I said. His letter was very much longer, but yet it did not say much. However, he is to come, and I am prepared to renew our engagement should he declare that he is willing to do so."
"What will Mudbury say?"
"I do not care very much what he says. I do not know that I am bound to care. If I have resolved to entangle myself with a long engagement, and Mr. Houston is willing to do the same, I do not think that my brother should interfere. I am my own mistress, and am dealing altogether with my own happiness."
"Imogene, we have discussed this so often before."
"Not a doubt; and with such effect that with my permission Frank was enabled to ask this young woman with a lot of money to marry him. Had it been arranged, I should have had no right to find fault with him, however sore of heart I might have been. All that has fallen through, and I consider myself quite entitled to renew my engagement again. I shall not ask him, you may be sure of that."
"It comes to the same thing, Imogene."
"Very likely. It often happens that ladies mean that to be expressed which it does not become them to say out loud. So it may be with me on this occasion. Nevertheless, the word, if it have to be spoken, will have to be spoken by him. What I want you to do now is to let me have the drawing-room alone at three o'clock on Sunday. If anything has to be said it will have to be said without witnesses."
With some difficulty Mrs. Docimer was induced to accede to the request, and to promise that, at any rate for the present, nothing should be said to her husband on the subject.
In the meantime, poor Ayala, whose days were running on in a very melancholy manner under her aunt's wings in Kingsbury Crescent, was creating further havoc and disturbing the bosom of another lover. At Stalham she had met a certain Captain Batsby, and had there attracted his attention. Captain Batsby had begged her to ride with him on one of those hunting-days, and had offered to give her a lead, – having been at the moment particularly jealous of Colonel Stubbs. On that day both Ayala and Nina had achieved great honour; – but this, to the great satisfaction of Captain Batsby, had not been achieved under the leadership of Colonel Stubbs. Larry Twentyman, long famous among the riding-men of the Ufford and Rufford United Hunt, had been the hero of the hour. Thus Captain Batsby's feelings had been spared, and after that he had imagined that any kindly feelings which Ayala might have had for the Colonel had sunk into abeyance. Then he had sought some opportunity to push himself into Ayala's favour, but hitherto his success in that direction had not been great.
Captain Batsby was regarded by the inhabitants of Stalham as a nuisance, – but as a nuisance which could not be avoided. He was half-brother to Sir Harry, whose mother had married, as her second husband, a certain opulent Mr. Batsby out of Lancashire. They were both dead now, and nothing of them remained but this Captain. He was good-natured, simple, and rich, and in the arrangement of the Albury-cum-Batsby affairs, which took place after the death of Mrs. Batsby, made himself pleasant to everybody concerned. Sir Harry, who certainly had no particular affection for his half-brother, always bore with him on this account; and Lady Albury was equally gracious, mindful of the wisdom of keeping on good terms with a rich relation. It was as yet quite on the cards that the Batsby money might come to some of the Albury scions.
But the Captain was anxious to provide himself with a wife who might be the mother of scions of his own. In fact he had fallen fearfully in love with Ayala, and was quite resolved to ask her to be his wife when he found that she was just on the point of flying from Stalham. He had intended to be quicker in his operations, but had lacked opportunity. On that last hunting-day the Colonel had always been still in his way, and circumstances had never seemed to favour him when he endeavoured to have a few words in private with the young lady. Then she was gone, and he could only learn respecting her that she lived with her aunt, Mrs. Dosett, in Kingsbury Crescent.
"I'm blessed if Benjamin isn't smitten with that girl!" Benjamin was Captain Batsby, and that girl was of course Ayala Dormer. The man who blessed himself was Sir Harry Albury, and the observation was addressed to his wife. This took place within an hour of Ayala's departure from Stalham.