But, in the meantime, Gertrude's second letter had gone up to Frank, and also a very heartrending epistle from Lady Tringle to her husband. "Poor Gertrude is in a very bad state. If ever there was a girl really broken-hearted on account of love, she is one. I did not think she would ever set her heart upon a man with such violent affection. I do think you might give way when it becomes a question of life and death. There isn't anything really against Mr. Houston." Sir Thomas, as he read this, was a little shaken. He had hitherto been inclined to agree with Rosalind, "That men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love." But now he did not know what to think about it. There was Tom undoubtedly in a bad way, and here was Gertrude brought to such a condition, simply by her love, that she refused to take her meals regularly! Was the world come to such a pass that a father was compelled to give his daughter with a large fortune to an idle adventurer, or else to be responsible for his daughter's life? Would Augusta have pined away and died had she not been allowed to marry her Traffick? Would Lucy pine and die unless money were given to her sculptor? Upon the whole, Sir Thomas thought that the cares of his family were harder to bear than those of his millions. In regard to Gertrude, he almost thought that he would give way, if only that he might be rid of that trouble.
It must be acknowledged that Frank Houston, when he received the young lady's letter, was less soft-hearted than her father. The letter was, or should have been, heartrending; —
You cruel Man,
You must have received my former letter, and though I told you that I was ill and almost dying you have not heeded it! Three posts have come, and I have not had a line from you. In your last you were weak enough to say that you were going to give it all up because you could not make papa do just what you wanted all at once. Do you know what it is to have taken possession of a young lady's heart; or is it true, as Augusta says of you, that you care for nothing but the money? If it is so, say it at once and let me die. As it is I am so very ill that I cannot eat a mouthful of anything, and have hardly strength left to me to write this letter.
But I cannot really believe what Augusta says, though I daresay it may have been so with Mr. Traffick. Perhaps you have not been to your club, and so you have not got my former letter. Or, it may be that you are ill yourself. If so, I do wish that I could come and nurse you, though indeed I am so ill that I am quite unable to leave my bed.
At any rate, pray write immediately; – and do come! Mamma seems to think that papa will give way because I am so ill. If so, I shall think my illness the luckiest thing in the world. – You must believe, dearest Frank, that I am now, as ever, yours most affectionately,Gertrude.
Frank Houston was less credulous than Sir Thomas, and did not believe much in the young lady's sickness.
My dear Miss Tringle,
It is to me a matter of inexpressible grief that I should have to explain again that I am unable to persist in seeking the honour of your hand in opposition to the absolute and repeated refusals which I have received from your father. It is so evident that we could not marry without his consent that I need not now go into that matter. But I think myself bound to say that, considering the matter in all its bearing, I must regard our engagement as finally at an end. Were I to hesitate in saying this very plainly I think I should be doing you an injury.
I am sorry to hear that you are unwell, and trust that you may soon recover your health.Your sincere friend,Frank Houston.
On the next morning Gertrude was still in her bed, having there received her letter, when she sent a message to her brother. Would Tom come and see her? Tom attended to her behest, and then sat down by her bedside on being told in a mysterious voice that she had to demand from him a great service. "Tom," she said, "that man has treated me most shamefully and most falsely."
"What man? Why, Frank Houston. There has never been any other man. After all that has been said and done he is going to throw me over."
"The governor threw him over," said Tom.
"That amounts to nothing. The governor would have given way, of course, and if he hadn't that was no matter of his. After he had had my promise he was bound to go on with it. Don't you think so?"
"Perhaps he was," said Tom, dubiously.
"Of course he was. What else is the meaning of a promise? Now I'll tell you what you must do. You must go up to London and find him out. You had better take a stick with you, and then ask him what he means to do."
"And if he says he'll do nothing?"
"Then, Tom, you should call him out. It is just the position in which a brother is bound to do that kind of thing for his sister. When he has been called out, then probably he'll come round, and all will be well."
The prospect was one which Tom did not at all like. He had had one duel on his hands on his own account, and had not as yet come through it with flying colours. There were still moments in which he felt that he would be compelled at last to take to violence in reference to Colonel Stubbs. He was all but convinced that were he to do so he would fall into some great trouble, but still it was more than probable that his outraged feelings would not allow him to resist. But this second quarrel was certainly unnecessary. "That's all nonsense, Gertrude," he said, "I can do nothing of the kind."
"You will not?"
"Certainly not. It would be absurd. You ask Septimus and he will tell you that it is so."
"At any rate, I won't. Men don't call each other out now-a-days. I know what ought to be done in these kind of things, and such interference as that would be altogether improper."
"Then, Tom," said she, raising herself in bed, and looking round upon him, "I will never call you my brother again!"
"Probably you are not aware, Sir, that I am not at present the young lady's guardian." This was said at the office in Lombard Street by Sir Thomas, in answer to an offer made to him by Captain Batsby for Ayala's hand. Captain Batsby had made his way boldly into the great man's inner room, and had there declared his purpose in a short and business-like manner. He had an ample income of his own, he said, and was prepared to make a proper settlement on the young lady. If necessary, he would take her without any fortune; – but it would, of course, be for the lady's comfort and for his own if something in the way of money were forthcoming. So much he added, having heard of this uncle's enormous wealth, and having also learned the fact that if Sir Thomas were not at this moment Ayala's guardian he had been not long ago. Sir Thomas listened to him with patience, and then replied to him as above.
"Just so, Sir Thomas. I did hear that. But I think you were once; and you are still her uncle."
"Yes; I am her uncle."
"And when I was so ill-treated in Kingsbury Crescent I thought I would come to you. It could not be right that a gentleman making an honourable proposition, – and very liberal, as you must acknowledge, – should not be allowed to see the young lady. It was not as though I did not know her. I had been ten days in the same house with her. Don't you think, Sir Thomas, I ought to have been allowed to see her?"
"I have nothing to do with her," said Sir Thomas; – "that is, in the way of authority." Nevertheless, before Captain Batsby left him, he became courteous to that gentleman, and though he could not offer any direct assurance he acknowledged that the application was reasonable. He was, in truth, becoming tired of Ayala, and would have been glad to find a husband whom she would accept, so that she might be out of Tom's way. He had been quite willing that Tom should marry the girl if it were possible, but he began to be convinced that it was impossible. He had offered again to open his house to her, with all its wealth, but she had refused to come into it. His wife had told him that, if Ayala could be brought back in place of Lucy, she would surely yield. But Ayala would not allow herself to be brought back. And there was Tom as bad as ever. If Ayala were once married then Tom could go upon his travels, and come back, no doubt, a sane man. Sir Thomas thought it might be well to make inquiry about this Captain, and then see if a marriage might be arranged. Mrs. Dosett, he told himself, was a hard, stiff woman, and would never get the girl married unless she allowed such a suitor as this Captain Batsby to have access to the house. He did make inquiry, and before the week was over had determined that if Ayala would become Mrs. Batsby there might probably be an end to one of his troubles.
As he went down to Merle Park he arranged his plan. He would, in the first place, tell Tom that Ayala had as many suitors as Penelope, and that one had come up now who would probably succeed. But when he reached home he found that his son was gone. Tom had taken a sudden freak, and had run up to London. "He seemed quite to have got a change," said Lady Tringle.
"I hope it was a change for the better as to that stupid girl." Lady Tringle could not say that there had been any change for the better, but she thought that there had been a change about the girl. Tom had, as she said, quite "brisked up," had declared that he was not going to stand this thing any longer, had packed up three or four portmanteaus, and had had himself carried off to the nearest railway station in time for an afternoon train up to London. "What is he going to do when he gets there?" asked Sir Thomas. Lady Tringle had no idea what her son intended to do, but thought that something special was intended in regard to Ayala.
"He is an ass," said the father.
"You always say he is an ass," said the mother, complaining.
"No doubt I do. What else am I to call him?" Then he went on and developed his scheme. "Let Ayala be asked to Merle Park for a week, – just for a week, – and assured that during that time Tom would not be there. Then let Captain Batsby also be invited." Upon this there followed an explanation as to Captain Batsby and his aspirations. Tom must be relieved after some fashion, and Sir Thomas declared that no better fashion seemed to present itself. Lady Tringle received her orders with sundry murmurings, still grieving for her son's grief; – but she assented, as she always did assent, to her husband's propositions.
Now we will accompany Tom up to London. The patient reader will perhaps have understood the condition of his mind when in those days of his sharpest agony he had given himself up to Faddle and champagne. By these means he had brought himself into trouble and disgrace, of which he was fully conscious. He had fallen into the hands of the police and had been harassed during the whole period by headache and nausea. Then had come the absurdity of his challenge to Colonel Stubbs, the folly of which had been made plain to him by the very letter which his rival had written to him. There was good sense enough about the poor fellow to enable him to understand that the police court, and the prison, that Faddle and the orgies at Bolivia's, that his challenge and the reply to it, were alike dishonourable to him. Then had come a reaction, and he spent a miserable fortnight down at Merle Park, doing nothing, resolving on nothing, merely moping about and pouring the oft-repeated tale of his woes into his mother's bosom. These days at Merle Park gave him back at any rate his health, and rescued him from the intense wretchedness of his condition on the day after the comparison of Bolivia's wines. In this improved state he told himself that it behoved him even yet to do something as a man, and he came suddenly to the bold resolution of having, – as he called it to himself, – another "dash at Ayala."
How the "dash" was to be made he had not determined when he left home. But to this he devoted the whole of the following Sunday. He had received a lachrymose letter from his friend Faddle, at Aberdeen, in which the unfortunate youth had told him that he was destined to remain in that wretched northern city for the rest of his natural life. He had not as yet been to the Mountaineers since his mishap with the police, and did not care to show himself there at present. He was therefore altogether alone, and, walking all alone the entire round of the parks, he at last formed his resolution.
On the following morning when Mr. Dosett entered his room at Somerset House, a little after half-past ten o'clock, he found his nephew Tom there before him, and waiting for him. Mr. Dosett was somewhat astonished, for he too had heard of Tom's misfortunes. Some ill-natured chronicle of Tom's latter doings had spread itself among the Tringle and Dosett sets, and Uncle Reginald was aware that his nephew had been forced to relinquish his stool in Lombard Street. The vices of the young are perhaps too often exaggerated, so that Mr. Dosett had heard of an amount of champagne consumed and a number of policemen wounded, of which his nephew had not been altogether guilty. There was an idea at Kingsbury Crescent that Tom had gone nearly mad, and was now kept under paternal care at Merle Park. When, therefore, he saw Tom blooming in health, and brighter than usual in general appearance, he was no doubt rejoiced, but also surprised, at the change. "What, Tom!" he said; "I'm glad to see you looking so well. Are you up in London again?"
"I'm in town for a day or two," said Tom.
"And what can I do for you?"
"Well, Uncle Reginald, you can do a great deal for me if you will. Of course you've heard of all those rows of mine?"
"I have heard something."
"Everybody has heard," said Tom, mournfully. "I don't suppose anybody was ever knocked so much about as I've been for the last six months."
"I'm sorry for that, Tom."
"I'm sure you are, because you're always good-natured. Now I wonder if you will do a great thing to oblige me."
"Let us hear what it is," said Uncle Reginald.
"I suppose you know that there is only one thing in the world that I want." Mr. Dosett thought that it would be discreet to make no reply to this, but, turning his chair partly round, he prepared to listen very attentively to what his nephew might have to say to him. "All this about the policeman and the rest of it has simply come from my being so unhappy about Ayala."
"It wouldn't be taken as a promise of your being a good husband, Tom, when you get into such a mess as that."
"That's because people don't understand," said Tom. "It is because I am so earnest about it, and because I can't bear the disappointment! There isn't one at Travers and Treason who doesn't know that if I'd married Ayala I should have settled down as quiet a young man as there is in all London. You ask the governor else himself. As long as I thought there was any hope I used to be there steady as a rock at half-past nine. Everybody knew it. So I should again, if she'd only come round."
"You can't make a lady come round, as you call it."
"Not make her; no. Of course you can't make a girl. But persuading goes a long way. Why shouldn't she have me? As to all these rows, she ought to feel at any rate that they're her doing. And what she's done it stands to reason she could undo if she would. It only wants a word from her to put me all right with the governor, – and to put me all right with Travers and Treason too. Nobody can love her as I do."
"I do believe that nobody could love her better," said Mr. Dosett, who was beginning to be melted by his nephew's earnestness.
"Oughtn't that to go for something? And then she would have everything that she wishes. She might live anywhere she pleased, – so that I might go to the office every day. She would have her own carriage, you know."
"I don't think that would matter much with Ayala."
"It shows that I'm in a position to ask her," said Tom. "If she could only bring herself not to hate me – "
"There is a difference, Tom, between hating and not loving."
"If she would only begin to make a little way, then I could hope again. Uncle Reginald, could you not tell her that at any rate I would be good to her?"
"I think you would be good to her," he said.
"Indeed, I would. There is nothing I would not do for her. Now will you let me see her just once again, and have one other chance?"
This was the great thing which Tom desired from his uncle, and Mr. Dosett was so much softened by his nephew's earnestness that he did promise to do as much as this; – to do as much as this, at least, if it were in his power. Of course, Ayala must be told. No good could be done by surprising her by a visit. But he would endeavour so to arrange it that, if Tom were to come to him on the following afternoon, they two should go to the Crescent together, and then Tom should remain and dine there, – or go away before dinner, as he might please, after the interview. This was settled, and Tom left Somerset House, rejoicing greatly at his success. It seemed to him that now at last a way was open to him.
Uncle Reginald, on his return home, took his niece aside and talked to her very gently and very kindly. "Whether you like him or whether you do not, my dear, he is so true to you that you are bound to see him again when he asks it." At first she was very stout, declaring that she would not see him. Of what good could it be, seeing that she would rather throw herself into the Thames than marry him? Had she not told him so over and over again, as often as he had spoken to her? Why would he not just leave her alone? But against all this her uncle pleaded gently but persistently. He had considered himself bound to promise so much on her behalf, and for his sake she must do as he asked. To this, of course, she yielded. And then he said many good things of poor Tom. His constancy was a great virtue. A man so thoroughly in love would no doubt make a good husband. And then there would be the assent of all the family, and an end, as far as Ayala was concerned, of all pecuniary trouble. In answer to this she only shook her head, promising, however, that she would be ready to give Tom an audience when he should be brought to the Crescent on the following day.
Punctually at four Tom made his appearance at Somerset House, and started with his uncle as soon as the index-books had been put in their places. Tom was very anxious to take his uncle home in a cab, but Mr. Dosett would not consent to lose his walk. Along the Embankment they went, and across Charing Cross into St. James's Park, and then by Green Park, Hyde Park, and Kensington Gardens, all the way to Notting Hill. Mr. Dosett did not walk very fast, and Tom thought they would never reach Kingsbury Crescent. His uncle would fain have talked about the weather, or politics, or the hardships of the Civil Service generally; but Tom would not be diverted from his one subject. Would Ayala be gracious to him? Mr. Dosett had made up his mind to say nothing on the subject. Tom must plead his own cause. Uncle Reginald thought that he knew such pleading would be useless, but still would not say a word to daunt the lover. Neither could he say a word expressive of hope. As they were fully an hour-and-a-half on their walk, this reticence was difficult.
Immediately on his arrival, Tom was taken up into the drawing-room. This was empty, for it had been arranged that Mrs. Dosett should be absent till the meeting was over. "Now I'll look for this child," said Uncle Reginald, in his cheeriest voice as he left Tom alone in the room. Tom, as he looked round at the chairs and tables, remembered that he had never received as much as a kind word or look in the room, and then great drops of perspiration broke out all over his brow. All that he had to hope for in the world must depend upon the next five minutes; – might depend perhaps upon the very selection of the words which he might use.
Then Ayala entered the room and stood before him.
"Ayala," he said, giving her his hand.
"Uncle Reg says that you would like to see me once again."
"Of course I want to see you once, and twice, – and always. Ayala, if you could know it! If you could only know it!" Then he clasped his two hands high upon his breast, not as though appealing to her heart, but striking his bosom in very agony. "Ayala, I feel that, if I do not have you as my own, I can only die for the want of you. Ayala, do you believe me?"
"I suppose I believe you, but how can I help it?"
"Try to help it! Try to try and help it! Say a word that you will perhaps help it by-and-bye." Then there came a dark frown upon her brow, – not, indeed, from anger, but from a feeling that so terrible a task should be thrown upon her. "I know you think that I am common."