"Benjamin in love with Ayala Dormer! I don't believe a word of it," said Lady Albury. It was not surprising that she should not believe it. There was her special favourite, Colonel Stubbs, infatuated by the same girl; and, as she was aware, Tom Tringle, the heir of Travers and Treason, was in the same melancholy condition. And, after all, according to her thinking, there was nothing in the girl to justify all this fury. In her eyes Ayala was pretty, but no more. She would have declared that Ayala had neither bearing, nor beauty, nor figure. A bright eye, a changing colour, and something of vivacity about her mouth, was all of which Ayala had to boast. Yet here were certainly the heir of the man of millions, and that Crichton of a Colonel, both knocked off their legs. And now she was told that Captain Batsby, who always professed himself hard to please in the matter of young ladies, was in the same condition. "Do you mean to say he told you?" she asked.
"No," said Sir Harry; "he is not at all the man to do that. In such a matter he is sure to have a great secret, and be sure also to let his secret escape in every word that he speaks. You will find that what I say is truth."
Before the day was out Lady Albury did find her husband to be correct. Captain Batsby, though he was very jealous of his secret, acknowledged to himself the necessity of having one confidant. He could hardly, he thought, follow Ayala without some assistance. He knew nothing of Mrs. Dosett, nothing of Kingsbury Crescent, and very little as to Ayala herself. He regarded Lady Albury as his chosen friend, and generally communicated to her whatever troubles he might have. These had consisted chiefly of the persecutions to which he had been subjected by the mothers of portionless young ladies. How not to get married off against his will had been the difficulty of his life. His half sister-in-law had hitherto preserved him, and therefore to her he now went for assistance in this opposite affair. "Rosalind," he said in his gravest voice, "what do you think I have to tell you?"
Lady Albury knew what was coming, but of course she hid her knowledge. "I hope Mrs. Motherly has not written to you again," she said. Mrs. Motherly was a lady who had been anxious that her daughter should grace Captain Batsby's table, and had written to him letters, asking him his intentions.
"Oh, dear; nothing of that kind. I do not care a straw for Mrs. Motherly or the girl either. I never said a word to her that any one could make a handle of. But I want to say a word to somebody now."
"What sort of word is it to be, Ben?"
"Ah," he groaned. "Rosalind, you must understand that I never was so much in earnest in my life!"
"You are always in earnest."
Then he sighed very deeply. "I shall expect you to help me through this matter, Rosalind."
"Do I not always help you?"
"Yes; you do. But you must stick to me now like wax. What do you think of that young lady, Miss Dormer?"
"I think she is a pretty girl; and the gentlemen tell me that she rides bravely."
"Don't you consider her divine?" he asked.
"My dear Ben, one lady never considers another to be divine.
"You have guessed it," said he. "You always do guess everything."
"I generally do guess as much as that, when young gentlemen find young ladies divine. Do you know anything about Miss Dormer?"
"Nothing but her beauty; – nothing but her wit; – nothing but her grace! I know all that, and I don't seem to want to know any more."
"Then you must be in love! In the first place she hasn't got a sixpence in the world."
"I don't want sixpences," said the Captain, proudly.
"And in the next place I am not at all sure that you would like her people. Father and mother she has none."
"Then I cannot dislike them."
"But she has uncles and aunts, who are, I am afraid, objectionable. She lives with a Mr. Dosett, who is a clerk in Somerset House, – a respectable man, no doubt, but one whom you would not perhaps want at your house very often."
"I don't care about uncles and aunts," said Captain Batsby. "Uncles and aunts can always be dropped much easier than fathers and mothers. At any rate I am determined to go on, and I want you to put me in the way. How must I find her?"
"Go to No. 10, Kingsbury Crescent, Bayswater. Ask for Mrs. Dosett and tell her what you've come about. When she knows that you are well off she will not turn a deaf ear to you. What the girl may do it is beyond me to say. She is very peculiar."
"Peculiar?" said the Captain with another sigh.
Lady Albury did, in truth, think Ayala was very peculiar, seeing that she had refused two such men as Tom Tringle in spite of his wealth, and Colonel Stubbs in spite of his position. This she had done though she had no prospects of her own before her, and no comfortable home at the present. Might it not be more than probable that she would also refuse Captain Batsby, who was less rich than the one and certainly less known to the world than the other? But as to this it was not necessary that she should say anything. To assist Colonel Stubbs she was bound by true affection for the man. In regard to her husband's half-brother she was only bound to seem to assist him. "I can write a line to Mrs. Dosett, if you wish it," she said, "or to Miss Dormer."
"I wish you would. It would be best to the aunt, and just tell her that I am fairly well off. She'll tell Ayala I could make quite a proper settlement on her. That kind of thing does go a long way with young ladies."
"It ought to do at any rate," said Lady Albury. "It certainly does with the old ladies." Then the matter was settled. She was to write to Mrs. Dosett and inform that lady that Captain Batsby intended to call in Kingsbury Crescent in the form of a suitor for Miss Ayala Dormer's hand. She would go on to explain that Captain Batsby was quite in a position to marry and maintain a wife.
"And if she should accept me you'll have her down here, Rosalind?" Here was a difficulty, as it was already understood that Ayala was to be again brought down to Stalham on the Colonel's account; but Lady Albury could make the promise, as, should the Captain be accepted, no harm would in that case be done to the Colonel. She was, however, tolerably sure that the Captain would not be accepted. "And, if she shouldn't take me all at once, still you might have her," suggested the lover. As to this, which was so probable, there would be a great difficulty. Ayala was to be seduced into coming again to Stalham if possible, – but specially on the Colonel's behoof. In such a case it must be done behind the Captain's back. Lady Albury saw the troubles which were coming, but nevertheless she promised that she would see what could be done. All this having been settled, Captain Batsby took his leave and went off to London.
Mrs. Dosett, when she received Lady Albury's letter, was very much surprised. She too failed to understand what there was in Ayala to produce such a multiplicity of suitors, one after another. When Lucy came to her and had begun to be objectionable, she had thought that she might some day be relieved from her troubles by the girl's marriage. Lucy, to her eyes, was beautiful, and mistress of a manner likely to be winning in a man's eyes, though ungracious to herself. But in regard to Ayala she had expressed nothing of the kind. Ayala was little, and flighty, and like an elf, – as she had remarked to her husband. But now, within twelve months, three lovers had appeared, and each of them suitable for matrimonial purposes. She could only tell her husband, and then tell Ayala.
"Captain Batsby! I don't believe it!" said Ayala, almost crying. If Colonel Stubbs could not be made to assume the garb of an Angel of Light what was she to think of Captain Batsby?
"You can read Lady Albury's letter."
"I don't want to read Lady Albury's letter. I won't see him. I don't care what my uncle says. I don't care what anybody says. Yes, I do know him. I remember him very well. I spoke to him once or twice, and I did not like him at all."
"You said the same of Colonel Stubbs."
"I didn't say the same of Colonel Stubbs. He is a great deal worse than Colonel Stubbs."
"And you said just the same of Tom."
"He is the same as Tom; – just as bad. It is no good going on about him, Aunt Margaret. I won't see him. If I were locked up in a room with him I wouldn't speak a word to him. He has no right to come."
"A gentleman, my dear, has always a right to ask a lady to be his wife if he has got means."
"You always say so, Aunt Margaret, but I don't believe it. There should be, – there should have been, – I don't know what; but I am quite sure the man has no right to come to me, and I won't see him." To this resolution Ayala clung, and, as she was very firm about it, Mrs. Dosett, after consultation with her husband, at last gave way, and consented to see Captain Batsby herself.
In due time Captain Batsby came. At any knock heard at the door during this period Ayala flew out of the drawing-room into her own chamber; and at the Captain's knock she flew with double haste, feeling sure that this was the special knock. The man was shown up, and in a set speech declared his purpose to Mrs. Dosett, and expressed a hope that Lady Albury might have written on the subject. Might he be allowed to see the young lady?
"I fear that it would be of no service, Captain Batsby."
"Of no service?"
"On receiving Lady Albury's letter I was of course obliged to tell my niece the honour you proposed to do her."
"I am quite in earnest, you know," said the Captain.
"So I suppose, as Lady Albury would not have written, nor would you have come on such a mission. But so is my niece in earnest."
"She will, at any rate, hear what I have got to say."
"She would rather not," said Mrs. Dosett. "She thinks that it would only be painful to both of you. As she has quite made up her mind that she cannot accept the honour you propose to do her, what good would it serve?"
"Is Miss Dormer at home?" asked the Captain, suddenly. Mrs. Dosett hesitated for a while, anxious to tell a lie on the matter, but fearing to do so. "I suppose she is at home," continued the urgent lover.
"Miss Dormer is at present in her own chamber."
"Then I think I ought to see her," continued the Captain. "She can't know at present what is my income."
"Lady Albury has told us that it is sufficient."
"But that means nothing. Your niece cannot be aware that I have a very pretty little place of my own down in Berkshire."
"I don't think it would make a difference," said Mrs. Dosett.
"Or that I shall be willing to settle upon her a third of my income. It is not many gentlemen who will do as much as that for a young lady, when the young lady has nothing of her own."
"I am sure you are very generous."
"Yes, I am. I always was generous. And I have no impediments to get rid of; not a trouble of that kind in all the world. And I don't owe a shilling. Very few young men, who have lived as much in the world as I have, can say that."
"I am sure your position is all that is desirable."
"That's just it. No position could be more desirable. I should give up the service immediately as soon as I was married." At that Mrs. Dosett bowed, not knowing what words to find for further conversation. "After that," continued the Captain, "do you mean to say that I am not to be allowed to see the young lady?"
"I cannot force her to come down, Captain Batsby."
"I would if I were you."
"Force a young lady?"
"Something ought to be done," said he, beginning almost to whine. "I have come here on purpose to see her, and I am quite prepared to do what is handsome. My half-sister, Lady Albury, had her down at Stalham, and is quite anxious to have her there again. I suppose you have no objection to make to me, Mrs. Dosett?"
"Oh, dear no."
"Or Mr. Dosett?"
"I do not say that he has, Captain Batsby; but this is a matter in which a young lady's word must be paramount. We cannot force her to marry you, or even to speak to you." The Captain still went on with entreaties, till Mrs. Dosett found herself so far compelled to accede to him as to go up to Ayala's room and beg her to come down and answer this third suitor with her own voice. But Ayala was immovable. When her aunt came near her she took hold of the bed as though fearing an attempt would be made to drag her out of the room. She again declared that if she were forced into the room below nothing could oblige her to speak even a word.
"As for thanking him," she said, "you can do that yourself, Aunt Margaret, if you like. I am not a bit obliged to him; but, if you choose to say so, you may; only pray do tell him to go away, – and tell him never, never to come back any more." Then Mrs. Dosett returned to the drawing-room, and declared that her embassy had been quite in vain.
"In all my life," said Captain Batsby, as he took his leave, "I never heard of such conduct before." Nevertheless, as he went away he made up his mind that Lady Albury should get Ayala again down to Stalham. He was very angry, but his love remained as hot as ever.
"As I did not succeed in seeing her," he said, in a letter to his half-sister, "of course I do not know what she might have said to me herself. I might probably have induced her to give me another hearing. I put it all down to that abominable aunt, who probably has some scheme of her own, and would not let Miss Dormer come down to me. If you will have her again at Stalham, everything may be made to go right."
At home, in Kingsbury Crescent, when Ayala had gone to bed, both Mr. and Mrs. Dosett expressed themselves as much troubled by the peculiarity of Ayala's nature. Mrs. Dosett declared her conviction that that promised legacy from Uncle Tom would never be forthcoming, because he had been so much offended by the rejection of his own son. And even should the legacy remain written in Sir Thomas's will, where would Ayala find a home if Mr. Dosett were to die before the baronet? This rejection of suitors, – of fit, well-to-do, unobjectionable suitors, – was held by Mrs. Dosett to be very wicked, and a direct flying in the face of Providence. "Does she think," said Mrs. Dosett, urging the matter with all her eloquence to her husband, "that young men with incomes are to be coming after her always like this?" Mr. Dosett shook his head and scratched it at the same time, which was always a sign with him that he was not at all convinced by the arguments used, but that he did not wish to incur further hostility by answering them. "Why shouldn't she see an eligible man when he comes recommended like this?"
"I suppose, my dear, she didn't think him nice enough."
"Nice! pshaw! I call it a direct flying in the face of Providence. If he were ever so nasty and twice as old she ought to think twice about it in her position. There is poor Tom, they say, absolutely ill. The housekeeper was over here from Queen's Gate the other day, and she declares that that affair about the policeman all came from his being in love. And now he has left the business and has gone to Merle Park, because he is so knocked in a heap that he cannot hold up his head."
"I don't see why love should make a man punch a policeman's breath out of him," said Mr. Dosett.
"Of course Tom was foolish; but he would do very well if she would have him. Of course your sister, and Sir Thomas, and all of them, will be very furious. What right will she have to expect money after that?"
"Tom is an ass," said Mr. Dosett.
"I suppose Colonel Stubbs is an ass too. What I want to know is what it is she looks for. Like any other girl, she expects to get married some day, I suppose; but she has been reading poetry, and novels, and trash, till she has got her head so full of nonsense that she doesn't know what it is she does want. I should like to shake her till I shook all the romance out of her. If there is anything I do hate it is romance, while bread and meat, and coals, and washing, are so dear." With this Mrs. Dosett took herself and her troubles up to her bedroom.
Mr. Dosett sat for a while gazing with speculative eyes at the embers of the fire. He was conscious in his heart that some part of that attack upon romance in general was intended for himself. Though he did not look to be romantic, especially when seated at his desk in Somerset House, with his big index-book before him, still there was left about him some touch of poetry, and an appreciation of the finer feelings of our nature. Though he could have wished that Ayala should have been able to take one of these three well-to-do suitors, who were so anxious to obtain her hand, still he could not bring himself not to respect her, still he was unable not to love her, because she was steadfastly averse to accept as a husband a man for whom she had no affection. As he looked at the embers he asked himself how it ought to be. Here was a girl whose only gift in life was her own personal charm. That that charm must be powerful was evident from the fact that she could so attract such men as these. Of the good things of the world, of a pleasant home, of ample means, and of all that absence of care which comes from money, poor Mr. Dosett had by no means a poor appreciation. That men are justified in seeking these good things by their energy, industry, and talents, he was quite confident. How was it with a girl who had nothing else but her beauty, – or, perhaps, her wit, – in lieu of energy and industry? Was she justified in carrying her wares also into the market, and making the most of them? The embers had burned so low, and he had become so cold before he had settled the question in his own mind, that he was obliged to go up to bed, leaving it unsettled.
A few days after this, just as the bread and cheese had been put on the table for the modest mid-day meal at Kingsbury Crescent, there came a most unwonted honour on Mrs. Dosett. It was a call from no less a person than Lady Tringle herself, who had come all the way up from Merle Park on purpose. It was a Saturday. She had travelled by herself and intended to go back on the same day with her husband. This was an amount of trouble which she very seldom gave herself, not often making a journey to London during the periods of her rural sojourn; and, when she began by assuring her sister-in-law that she made the journey with no object but that of coming to Kingsbury Crescent, Mrs. Dosett was aware that something very important was to be communicated. Mrs. Dosett and Ayala were together in the dining-room when Lady Tringle appeared, and the embracings were very affectionate. They were particularly affectionate towards Ayala, who was kissed as though nothing had ever happened to interfere with the perfect love existing between the aunt and the niece. They were more than friendly, almost sisterly, towards Mrs. Dosett, whom in truth Lady Tringle met hardly more than once in a year. It was very manifest that Aunt Emmeline wanted to have something done. "Now, my darling," she said, turning to Ayala, "if you would not mind going away for ten minutes, I could say a few words on very particular business to your aunt." Then she gave her niece a tender little squeeze and assumed her sweetest smile.
It will be as well to go back a little and tell the cause which had produced this unexpected visit. There had been very much of real trouble at Merle Park. Everything was troublesome. Gertrude had received her final letter from her lover, had declared herself to be broken-hearted, and was evincing her sorrow by lying in bed half the day, abstaining from her meals, and relieving herself from famine by sly visits to the larder. It was supposed that her object was to bend the stony heart of her father, but the process added an additional trouble to her mother. Then the Trafficks were a sore vexation. It was now nearly the end of January and they were still at Merle Park. There had been a scene in which Sir Thomas had been very harsh. "My dear," he had said to his wife, "I find that something must be done to the chimney of the north room. The workmen must be in it by the first of February. See and have all the furniture taken out before they come." Now the north room was the chamber in which the Trafficks slept, and the Trafficks were present when the order was given. No one believed the story of the chimney. This was the mode of expulsion which Sir Thomas had chosen on the spur of the moment. Mr. Traffick said not a word, but in the course of the morning Augusta expostulated with her mother. This was also disagreeable. Then the condition of Tom was truly pitiable. All his trust in champagne, all his bellicose humour, had deserted him. He moped about the place the most miserable of human beings, spending hour after hour in imploring his mother's assistance. But Lucy with her quiet determination, and mute persistency in waiting, was a source of almost greater annoyance to her aunt than even her own children. That Lucy should in any degree have had her way with Mr. Hamel, had gone against the grain with her. Mr. Hamel, to her thinking, was a person to be connected with whom would be a disgrace. She was always speaking of his birth, of his father's life, and of those Roman iniquities. She had given way for a time when she had understood that her husband intended to give the young people money enough to enable them to marry. In that case Lucy would at once be taken away from the house. But now all that had come to an end. Sir Thomas had given no money, and had even refused to give any money. Nevertheless he was peacefully indulgent to Lucy, and was always scolding his wife because she was hostile to Lucy's lover.