The correspondence between Lady Albury and Colonel Stubbs was close and frequent, the friendship between them being very close. Ayala had sometimes asked herself why Lady Albury should have been so kind and affectionate to her, and had failed to find any sufficient answer. She had been asked to Stalham at first, – so far as she knew, – because she had been intimate at Rome with the Marchesa Baldoni. Hence had apparently risen Lady Albury's great friendship, which had seemed even to herself to be strange. But in truth the Marchesa had had very little to do with it, – nor had Lady Albury become attached to Ayala for Ayala's own sake. To Lady Albury Colonel Stubbs was, – as she declared to herself very often, – "her own real brother." She had married a man very rich, well known in the world, whom she loved very well; and she was not a woman who in such a position would allow herself to love another man. That there might certainly be no danger of this kind she was continually impressing on her friend the expediency of marriage, – if only he could find some one good enough to marry. Then the Colonel had found Ayala. Lady Albury at the beginning of all this was not inclined to think that Ayala was good enough. Judging at first from what she heard and then from what she saw, she had not been very favourable to Ayala. But when her friend had insisted, – had declared that his happiness depended on it, – had shown by various signs that he certainly would carry out his intentions, if not at Stalham then elsewhere, Lady Albury had yielded herself to him, and had become Ayala's great friend. If it was written in the book that Ayala was to become Mrs. Stubbs then it would certainly be necessary that she and Ayala should be friends. And she herself had such confidence in Jonathan Stubbs as a man of power, that she did not doubt of his success in any matter to which he might choose to devote himself. The wonder had been that Ayala should have rejected the chance when it had come in her way. The girl had been foolish, allowing herself to be influenced by the man's red hair and ill-sounding name, – not knowing a real pearl when she saw it. So Lady Albury had thought, – having only been partially right in so thinking, – not having gone to the depth of Ayala's power of dreaming. She was very confident, however, that the girl, when once again at Stalham, would yield herself easily; and therefore she went to work, doing all that she could to smoothen love's road for her friend Jonathan. Her woman's mind had seen all those difficulties about clothes, and would have sent what was needful herself had she not feared to offend both the Dosetts and Ayala. Therefore she prepared a present which she could give to the girl at Stalham without offence. If it was to be the girl's high fate to become Mrs. Jonathan Stubbs, it would be proper that she should be adorned and decked, and made beautiful among others of her class, – as would become the wife of such a hero.
Of all that passed between her and Ayala word was sent down to Aldershot.
The Colonel was clearly determined to have the little journey together. Whatever might be the present military duties at Aldershot, the duties of love were for the nonce in the Colonel's mind more imperative. Though his Royal Highness had been coming that afternoon to inspect all the troops, still he would have resolved so to have arranged matters as to travel down with Ayala to Stalham. But not only was he determined to do this, but he found it necessary also to arrange a previous meeting with Lady Albury before that important twentieth of the month. This he did by making his friend believe that her presence in London for a few hours would be necessary for various reasons. She came up as he desired, and there he met her at her hotel in Jermyn Street. On his arrival here he felt that he was almost making a fool of himself by the extent of his anxiety. In his nervousness about this little girl he was almost as insane as poor Tom Tringle, who, when she despised his love, was altogether unable to control himself. "If I cannot persuade her at last, I shall be knocking somebody over the head, as he did." It was thus he was talking to himself as he got out of the cab at the door of the hotel.
"And now, Jonathan," said Lady Albury, "what can there possibly be to justify you in giving me all this trouble?"
"You know you had to come up about that cook's character."
"I know that I have given that as a reason to Sir Harry; but I know also that I should have gone without a cook for a twelvemonth had you not summoned me."
"The truth is I could not get down to Stalham and back without losing an additional day, which I cannot possibly spare. With you it does not very much matter how many days you spare."
"Nor how much money I spend, nor how much labour I take, so that I obey all the commands of Colonel Jonathan Stubbs! What on earth is there that I can say or do for you more?"
"There are one or two things," said he, "that I want you to understand. In the first place, I am quite in earnest about this."
"Don't I know that you're in earnest?"
"But perhaps you do not understand the full extent of my earnestness. If she were to refuse me ultimately I should go away."
"Go away! Go where?"
"Oh; that I have not at all thought of; – probably to India, as I might manage to get a regiment there. But in truth it would matter very little."
"You are talking like a goose."
"That is very likely, because in this matter I think and feel like a goose. It is not a great thing in a man to be turned out of his course by some undefined feeling which he has as to a young woman. But the thing has occurred before now, and will occur again, in my case, if I am thrown over."
"What on earth is there about the girl?" asked Lady Albury. "There is that precious brother-in-law of ours going to hang himself incontinently because she will not look at him. And that unfortunate friend of yours, Tom Tringle, is, if possible, worse than Ben Batsby or yourself."
"If two other gentlemen are in the same condition it only makes it the less singular that I should be the third. At any rate, I am the third."
"You do not mean to liken yourself to them?"
"Indeed I do. As to our connection with Miss Dormer, I can see no difference. We are all in love with her, and she has refused us all. It matters little whether a man's ugliness or his rings or his natural stupidity may have brought about this result."
"You are very modest, Jonathan."
"I always was, only you never could see it. I am modest in this matter; but not for that reason the less persistent in doing the best I can for myself. My object now in seeing you is to let you understand that it is – well, not life and death, because she will not suffice either to kill me or to keep me alive, – but one of those matters which, in a man's career, are almost as important to him as life and death. She was very decided in her refusal."
"So is every girl when a first offer is made to her. How is any girl so to arrange her thoughts at a moment's notice as to accept a man off-hand?"
"Girls do do so."
"Very rarely, I think; and when they do they are hardly worth having," said Lady Albury, laying down the law on the matter with great precision. "If a girl accept a man all at once when she has had, as it were, no preparation for such a proposal, she must always surely be in a state of great readiness for matrimonial projects. When there has been a prolonged period of spooning then of course it is quite a different thing. The whole thing has in fact been arranged before the important word has been spoken."
"What a professor in the art you are!" said he.
"The odd thing is, that such a one as you should be so ignorant. Can't you understand that she would not come to Stalham if her mind were made up against you? I said nothing of you as a lover, but I took care to let her know that you were coming. You are very ready to put yourself in the same boat with poor Ben Batsby or that other unfortunate wretch. Would she, do you think, have consented to come had she known that Ben would have been there, or your friend Tom Tringle?"
There was much more of it, but the upshot was, – as the Colonel had intended that it should be, – that Lady Albury was made to understand that Ayala's good-will was essential to his happiness. "Of course I will do my best," she said, as he parted from her. "Though I am not quite as much in love with her myself as you are, yet I will do my best." Then when she was left alone, and was prosecuting her inquiries about the new cook, and travelling back in the afternoon to Stalham, she again considered how wonderful a thing it was such a girl as Ayala, so small, apparently so unimportant, so childish in her manner, with so little to say for herself, should become a person of such terrible importance.
The twentieth came, and at ten minutes before two Ayala was at the Paddington Railway Station. The train, which was to start at 2.15, had been chosen by herself so that she might avoid the Colonel, and there she was, with her aunt, waiting for it. Mrs. Dosett had thought it to be her duty to see her off, and had come with her in the cab. There were the two boxes laden with her wardrobe, such as it was. Both she and her aunt had worked hard; for though, – as she had declared to herself, – there was no special reason for it, still she had wished to look her best. As she saw the boxes put into the van, and had told herself how much shabbier they were than the boxes of other young ladies who went visiting to such houses as Stalham, she rejoiced that Colonel Stubbs was not there to see them. And she considered whether it was possible that Colonel Stubbs should recognise a dress which she had worn at Stalham before, which was now to appear in a quite altered shape. She wondered also whether it would be possible that Colonel Stubbs should know how poor she was. As she was thinking of all this there was Colonel Stubbs on the platform.
She had never doubted but that little plan would be efficacious. Nor had her aunt doubted, – who had seen through the plan, though not a word had been spoken between them on the subject. Mrs. Dosett had considered it to be impossible that a Colonel engaged on duties of importance at Aldershot should run away from them to wait upon a child like Ayala, – even though he had professed himself to be in love with the child. She had never seen the Colonel, and on this occasion did not expect to see him. But there he was, all suddenly, shaking hands with Ayala.
"My aunt, Mrs. Dosett," whispered Ayala. Then the Colonel began to talk to the elder lady as though the younger lady were a person of very much less importance. Yes; he had run up from Aldershot a little earlier than he had intended. There had been nothing particular to keep him down at Aldershot. It had always been his intention to go to Stalham on this day, and was glad of the accident which was bringing Miss Dormer there just at the same time. He spent a good deal of his time at Stalham because Sir Harry and he, who were in truth cousins, were as intimate as brothers. He always lived at Stalham when he could get away from duty and was not in London. Stalham was a very nice place certainly; one of the most comfortable houses he knew in England. So he went on till he almost made Mrs. Dosett believe, and did make Ayala believe, that his visit to Stalham had nothing to do with herself. And yet Mrs. Dosett knew that the offer had been made. Ayala bethought herself that she did not care so much for the re-manufactured frock after all, nor yet for the shabby appearance of the boxes. The real Angel of Light would not care for her frock nor for her boxes; and certainly would not be indifferent after the fashion of, – of, – ! Then she began to reflect that she was making a fool of herself.
She was put into the carriage, Mr. Dosett having luckily decided against the use of the second class. Going to such a house as Stalham Ayala ought, said Mr. Dosett, to go as any other lady would. Had it been himself or his wife it would have been very different; but for Ayala, on such an occasion as this, he would be extravagant. Ayala was therefore put into her seat while the Colonel stood at the door outside, still talking to Mrs. Dosett. "I don't think she will be let to come away at the end of a week," said the Colonel. "Sir Harry doesn't like people to come away very soon." Ayala heard this, and thought that she remembered that Sir Harry himself was very indifferent as to the coming and going of the visitors. "They go up to London about the end of March," said the Colonel, "and if Miss Dormer were to return about a week before it would do very well."
"Oh, no," said Ayala, putting her head out of the window; "I couldn't think of staying so long as that." Then the last final bustle was made by the guard; the Colonel got in, the door was shut, and Mrs. Dosett, standing on the platform, nodded her head for the last time.
There were only four persons in the carriage. In the opposite corner there were two old persons, probably a husband and wife, who had been very careful as to a foot-warming apparatus, and were muffled up very closely in woollen and furs. "If you don't mind shutting the door, Sir," said the old gentleman, rather testily, "because my wife has a pain in her face." The door absolutely was shut when the words were spoken, but the Colonel made some sign of closing all the apertures. But there was a ventilator above, which the old lady spied. "If you don't mind shutting that hole up there, Sir, because my husband is very bad with neuralgia." The Colonel at once got up and found that the ventilator was fast closed, so as not to admit a breath of air. "There are draughts come in everywhere," said the old gentleman. "The Company ought to be prosecuted." "I believe the more people they kill the better they like it," said the old lady. Then the Colonel looked at Ayala with a very grave face, with no hint at a smile, with a face which must have gratified even the old lady and gentleman. But Ayala understood the face, and could not refrain from a little laugh. She laughed only with her eyes, – but the Colonel saw it.
"The weather has been very severe all day," said the Colonel, in a severe voice.
Ayala protested that she had not found it cold at all. "Then, Miss, I think you must be made of granite," said the old lady. "I hope you'll remember that other people are not so fortunate." Ayala again smiled, and the Colonel made another effort as though to prevent any possible breath of air from making its way into the interior of the vehicle.
There was silence among them for some minutes, and then Ayala was quite surprised by the tone in which her friend addressed her. "What an ill-natured girl you must be," said he, "to have put me to such a terrible amount of trouble all on purpose."
"I didn't," said Ayala.
"Yes, you did. Why wouldn't you come down by the four o'clock train as I told you? Now I've left everything undone, and I shouldn't wonder if I get into such a row at the Horse Guards that I shall never hear the end of it. And now you are not a bit grateful."
"Yes, I am grateful; but I didn't want you to come at all," she said.
"Of course I should come. I didn't think you were so perverse."
"I'm not perverse, Colonel Stubbs."
"When young persons are perverse, it is my opinion they oughtn't to be encouraged," said the old lady from her corner.
"My dear, you know nothing about it," said the old gentleman.
"Yes, I do," said the old lady. "I know all about it. Whatever she does a young lady ought not to be perverse. I do hate perversity. I am sure that hole up there must be open, Sir, for the wind does come in so powerful." Colonel Stubbs again jumped up and poked at the ventilator.
In the meantime Ayala was laughing so violently that she could with difficulty prevent herself from making a noise, which, she feared, would bring down increased wrath upon her from the old lady. That feigned scolding from the Colonel at once brought back upon her the feeling of sudden and pleasant intimacy which she had felt when he had first come and ordered her to dance with him at the ball in London. It was once again with her as though she knew this man almost more intimately, and certainly more pleasantly, than any of her other acquaintances. Whatever he said she could answer him now, and pretend to scold him, and have her joke with him as though no offer had ever been made. She could have told him now all the story of that turned dress, if that subject had come naturally to her, or have laughed with him at her own old boxes, and confided to him any other of the troubles of her poverty, as if they were jokes which she could share at any rate with him. Then he spoke again. "I do abominate a perverse young woman," he said. Upon this Ayala could no longer constrain herself, but burst into loud laughter.
After a while the two old people became quite familiar, and there arose a contest, in which the lady took part with the Colonel, and the old man protected Ayala. The Colonel spoke as though he were quite in earnest, and went on to declare that the young ladies of the present time were allowed far too much licence. "They never have their own bread to earn," he said, "and they ought to make themselves agreeable to other people who have more to do."
"I quite agree with you, Sir," said the old lady. "They should run about and be handy. I like to see a girl that can jump about the house and make herself useful."
"Young ladies ought to be young ladies," said the old man, putting his mouth for a moment up out of his comforter.
"And can't a young lady be useful and yet be a young lady?" said the Colonel.
"It is her special province to be ornamental," said the old gentleman. "I like to see young ladies ornamental. I don't think young ladies ought to be scolded, even if they are a little fractious."
"I quite agree with you, Sir," said Ayala. And so the fight went on with sundry breaks and changes in the matter under discussion till the station for Stalham had been reached. The old gentleman, indeed, seemed to lose his voice before the journey was half over, but the lady persevered, so that she and the Colonel became such fast friends that she insisted on shaking hands with him when he left the carriage.
"How could you be so wicked as to go on hoaxing her like that?" said Ayala, as soon as they were on the platform.
"There was no hoax at all. I was quite in earnest. Was not every word true that I said? Now come and get into the carriage quickly, or you will be as bad as the old gentleman himself."
Ayala did get into the carriage quickly, where she found Nina.
The two girls were full of conversation as they went to Stalham; but through it all Ayala could not refrain from thinking how the Jonathan Stubbs of to-day had been exactly like that Jonathan Stubbs she had first known, – and how very unlike a lover.
When Ayala went to Stalham Captain Batsby went to Merle Park. They had both been invited by Lady Tringle, and when the letter was written to Ayala she was assured that Tom should not be there. At that time Tom's last encounter with the police had not as yet become known to the Tringles, and the necessity of keeping Tom at the house in the country was not manifest. The idea had been that Captain Batsby should have an opportunity of explaining himself to Ayala. The Captain came; but, as to Ayala, Mrs. Dosett sent word to say that she had been invited to stay some days just at that time with her friend Lady Albury at Stalham.
What to do with Captain Batsby had been felt to be a difficulty by Lady Albury. It was his habit to come to Stalham some time in March and there finish the hunting season. It might be hoped that Ayala's little affair might be arranged early in March, and then, whether he came or whether he did not, it would be the same to Ayala. But the Captain himself would be grievously irate when he should hear the trick which would have been played upon him. Lady Albury had already desired him not to come till after the first week in March, having fabricated an excuse. She had been bound to keep the coast clear both for Ayala's sake and the Colonel's; but she knew that when her trick should be discovered there would be unmeasured wrath. "Why the deuce don't you let the two men come, and then the best man may win!" said Sir Harry, who did not doubt but that, in such a case, the Colonel would prove to be the best man. Here too there was another difficulty. When Lady Albury attempted to explain that Ayala would not come unless she were told that she would not meet the Captain, Sir Harry declared that there should be no such favour. "Who the deuce is this little girl," he asked, "that everybody should be knocked about in this way for her?" Lady Albury was able to pacify the husband, but she feared that any pacifying of the Captain would be impossible. There would be a family quarrel; – but even that must be endured for the Colonel's sake.