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In the meantime the Captain was kept in absolute ignorance of Ayala's movements, and went down to Merle Park hoping to meet her there. He must have been very much in love, for Merle Park was by no means a spot well adapted for hunting. Hounds there were in the neighbourhood, but he turned up his nose at the offer when Sir Thomas suggested that he might bring down a hunter. Captain Batsby, when he went on hunting exhibitions, never stirred without five horses, and always confined his operations to six or seven favoured counties. But Ayala just at present was more to him than hunting, and therefore, though it was now the end of February, he went to Merle Park.
"It was all Sir Thomas's doing." It was thus that Lady Tringle endeavoured to console herself when discussing the matter with her daughters. The Honourable Septimus Traffick had now gone up to London, and was inhabiting a single room in the neighbourhood of the House. Augusta was still at Merle Park, much to the disgust of her father. He did not like to tell her to be gone; and would indeed have been glad enough of her presence had it not been embittered by the feeling that he was being "done." But there she remained, and in discussing the affairs of the Captain with her mother and Gertrude was altogether averse to the suggested marriage for Ayala. To her thinking Ayala was not entitled to a husband at all. Augusta had never given way in the affair of Tom; – had declared her conviction that Stubbs had never been in earnest; and was of opinion that Captain Batsby would be much better off at Merle Park without Ayala than he would have been in that young lady's presence. When he arrived nothing was said to him at once about Ayala. Gertrude, who recovered from the great sickness occasioned by Mr. Houston's misconduct, though the recovery was intended only to be temporary, made herself as pleasant as possible. Captain Batsby was made welcome, and remained three days before he sought an opportunity of asking a question about Ayala.
During this time he found Gertrude to be a very agreeable companion, but he made Mrs. Traffick his first confidant. "Well, you know, Captain Batsby, to tell you the truth, we are not very fond of our cousin."
"Sir Thomas told me she was to be here."
"So we know. My father is perhaps a little mistaken about Ayala."
"Was she not asked?" demanded Captain Batsby, beginning to think that he had been betrayed.
"Oh, yes; she was asked. She has been asked very often, because she is mamma's niece, and did live with us once for a short time. But she did not come. In fact she won't go anywhere, unless – "
"You know Colonel Stubbs?"
"Jonathan Stubbs. Oh dear, yes; very intimately. He is a sort of connection of mine. He is my half-brother's second cousin by the father's side."
"Oh indeed! Does that make him very near?"
"Not at all. I don't like him, if you mean that. He always takes everything upon himself down at Stalham."
"What we hear is that Ayala is always running after him."
"Ayala running after Jonathan?"
"Haven't you heard of that?" asked Mrs.Traffick. "Why; – she is at Stalham with the Alburys this moment, and I do not doubt that Colonel Stubbs is there also. She would not have gone had she not been sure of meeting him."
This disturbed the Captain so violently that for two or three hours he kept himself apart, not knowing what to do with himself or where to betake himself. Could this be true about Jonathan Stubbs? There had been moments of deep jealousy down at Stalham; but then he had recovered from that, having assured himself that he was wrong. It had been Larry Twentyman and not Jonathan Stubbs who had led the two girls over the brook, – into which Stubbs had simply fallen, making himself an object of pity. But now again the Captain believed it all. It was on this account, then, that his half-sister-in-law, Rosaline, had desired him to stay away from Stalham for the present! He knew well how high in favour with Lady Albury was that traitor Stubbs; how it was by her favour that Stubbs, who was no more than a second cousin, was allowed to do just what he pleased in the stables, while Sir Harry himself, the master of the hounds, confined himself to the kennel! He was determined at first to leave Merle Park and start instantly for Stalham, and had sent for his servant to begin the packing of his things; but as he thought of it more maturely he considered that his arrival at Stalham would be very painful to himself as well as to others. For the others he did not much care, but he saw clearly that the pain to himself would be very disagreeable. No one at Stalham would be glad to see him. Sir Harry would be disturbed, and the other three persons with whom he was concerned, – Lady Albury, Stubbs, and Ayala, – would be banded together in hostility against him. What chance would he have under such circumstances? Therefore he determined that he would stay at Merle Park yet a little longer.
And, after all, was Ayala worth the trouble which he had proposed to take for her? How much had he offered her, how scornfully had his offer been received, and how little had she to give him in return! And now he had been told that she was always running after Jonathan Stubbs! Could it be worth his while to run after a girl who was always running after Jonathan Stubbs? Was he not much higher in the world than Jonathan Stubbs, seeing that he had, at any rate, double Stubbs's income? Stubbs was a red-haired, ugly, impudent fellow, who made his way wherever he went simply by "cheek"! Upon reflection, he found that it would be quite beneath him to run after any girl who could so demean herself as to run after Jonathan Stubbs. Therefore he came down to dinner on that evening with all his smiles, and said not a word about Ayala to Sir Thomas, who had just returned from London.
"Is he very much provoked?" Sir Thomas asked his wife that evening.
"Provoked about what?"
"He was expressly told that he would meet Ayala here."
"He seems to be making himself very comfortable, and hasn't said a word to me about Ayala. I am sick of Ayala. Poor Tom is going to be really ill." Then Sir Thomas frowned, and said nothing more on that occasion.
Tom was certainly in an uncomfortable position, and never left his bed till after noon. Then he would mope about the place, moping even worse than he did before, and would spend the evening all alone in the housekeeper's room, with a pipe in his mouth, which he seemed hardly able to take the trouble to keep alight. There were three or four other guests in the house, including two Honourable Miss Trafficks, and a couple of young men out of the City, whom Lady Tringle hoped might act as antidotes to Houston and Hamel. But with none of them would Tom associate. With Captain Batsby he did form some little intimacy; driven to it, no doubt, by a community of interest. "I believe you were acquainted with my cousin, Miss Dormer, at Stalham?" asked Tom. At the moment the two were sitting over the fire in the housekeeper's room, and Captain Batsby was smoking a cigar, while Tom was sucking an empty pipe.
"Oh, yes," said Captain Batsby, pricking up his ears, "I saw a good deal of her."
"A wonderful creature!" ejaculated Tom.
"For a real romantic style of beauty, I don't suppose that the world ever saw her like before. Did you?"
"Are you one among your cousin's admirers?" demanded the Captain.
"Am I?" asked Tom, surprised that there should be anybody who had not as yet heard his tragic story. "Am I one of her admirers? Why, – rather! Haven't you heard about me and Stubbs?"
"I thought that everybody had heard that. I challenged him, you know."
"To fight a duel?"
"Yes; to fight a duel. I sent my friend Faddle down with a letter to Stalham, but it was of no use. Why should a man fight a duel when he has got such a girl as Ayala to love him?"
"That is quite true, then?"
"I fear so! I fear so! Oh, yes; it is too true. Then you know;" – and as he came to this portion of his story he jumped up from his chair and frowned fiercely; – "then, you know, I met him under the portico of the Haymarket, and struck him."
"Oh, – was that you?"
"Indeed it was."
"And he did not do anything to you?"
"He behaved like a hero," said Tom. "I do think that he behaved like a hero, – though of course I hate him." The bitterness of expression was here very great. "He wouldn't let them lock me up. Though, in the matter of that, I should have been best pleased if they would have locked me up for ever, and kept me from the sight of the world. Admire that girl, Captain Batsby! I don't think that I ever heard of a man who loved a girl as I love her. I do not hesitate to say that I continue to walk the world, – in the way of not committing suicide, I mean, – simply because there is still a possibility while she has not as yet stood at the hymeneal altar with another man. I would have shot Stubbs willingly, though I knew I was to be tried for it at the Old Bailey, – and hung! I would have done it willingly, – willingly; or any other man." After that Captain Batsby thought it might be prudent not to say anything especial as to his own love.
And how foolish would it be for a man like himself, with a good fortune of his own, to marry any girl who had not a sixpence! The Captain was led into this vain thought by the great civility displayed to him by the ladies of the house. With Lucy, whom he knew to be Ayala's sister, he had not prospered very well. It came to his ears that she was out of favour with her aunt, and he therefore meddled with her but little. The Tringle ladies, however, were very kind to him, – so kind that he was tempted to think less than ever of one who had been so little courteous to him as Ayala. Mrs. Traffick was of course a married woman, and it amounted to nothing. But Gertrude – ! All the world knew that Septimus Traffick without a shilling of his own had become the happy possessor of a very large sum of money. He, Batsby, had more to recommend him than Traffick! Why should not he also become a happy possessor? He went away for a week's hunting into Northamptonshire, and then, at Lady Tringle's request, came back to Merle Park.
At this time Miss Tringle had quite recovered her health. She had dropped all immediate speech as to Mr. Houston. Had she not been provoked, she would have allowed all that to drop into oblivion. But a married sister may take liberties. "You are well rid of him, I think," said Augusta. Gertrude heaved a deep sigh. She did not wish to acknowledge herself to be rid of him until another string were well fitted to her bow. "After all, a man with nothing to do in the world, with no profession, no occupation, with no money – "
"Mr. Traffick had not got very much money of his own."
"He has a seat in Parliament, which is very much more than fortune, and will undoubtedly be in power when his party comes in. And he is a man of birth. But Frank Houston had nothing to recommend him."
"Birth!" said Gertrude, turning up her nose.
"The Queen, who is the fountain of honour, made his father a nobleman, and that constitutes birth." This the married sister said with stern severity of manner, and perfect reliance on the constitutional privileges of her Sovereign.
"I don't know that we need talk about it," said Gertrude.
"Not at all. Mr. Houston has behaved very badly, and I suppose there is an end of him as far as this house is concerned. Captain Batsby seems to me to be a very nice young man, and I suppose he has got money. A man should certainly have got money, – or an occupation."
"He has got both," said Gertrude, which, however, was not true, as Captain Batsby had left the service.
* * * * * *
"Have you forgotten my cousin so soon?" Gertrude asked one day, as she was walking with the happy Captain in the park. The Captain, no doubt, had been saying soft things to her.
"Do you throw that in my teeth as an offence?"
"Inconstancy in men is generally considered as an offence," said Gertrude. What it might be in women she did not just then declare.
"After all I have heard of your cousin since I have been here, I should hardly have thought that it would be reckoned so in this case."
"You have heard nothing against her from me."
"I am told that she has treated your brother very badly."
"And that she is flirting with a man I particularly dislike."
"I suppose she does make herself rather peculiar with that Colonel Stubbs."
"And, after all, only think how little I saw of her! She is pretty."
"So some people think. I never saw it myself," said Gertrude. "We always thought her a mass of affectation. We had to turn her out of the house once you know. She was living here, and then it was that her sister had to come in her place. It is not their fault that they have got nothing; – poor girls! They are mamma's nieces, and so papa always has one of them." After that forgiveness was accorded to the Captain on account of his fickle conduct, and Gertrude consented to accept of his services in the guise of a lover. That this was so Mrs. Traffick was well aware. Nor was Lady Tringle very much in the dark. Frank Houston was to be considered as good as gone, and if so it would be well that her daughter should have another string. She was tired of the troubles of the girls around her, and thought that as Captain Batsby was supposed to have an income he would do as a son-in-law. But she had not hitherto been consulted by the young people, who felt among themselves that there still might be a difficulty. The difficulty lay with Sir Thomas. Sir Thomas had brought Captain Batsby there to Merle Park as Ayala's lover, and as he had been very little at home was unaware of the changes which had taken place. And then Gertrude was still supposed to be engaged to Mr. Houston, although this lover had been so violently rejected by himself. The ladies felt that, as he was made of sterner stuff than they, so would it be more difficult to reconcile him to the alterations which were now proposed in the family arrangements. Who was to bell the cat? "Let him go to papa in the usual way, and ask his leave," said Mrs. Traffick.
"I did suggest that," said Gertrude, "but he seems not to like to do it quite yet."
"Is he such a coward as that?"
"I do not know that he is more a coward than anybody else. I remember when Septimus was quite afraid to go near papa. But then Benjamin has got money of his own, which does make a difference."
"It's quite untrue saying that Septimus was ever afraid of papa. Of course he knows his position as a Member of Parliament too well for that. I suppose the truth is, it's about Ayala."
"It is a little odd about Ayala," said Gertrude, resuming her confidential tone. "It is so hard to make papa understand about these kind of things. I declare I believe he thinks that I never ought to speak to another man because of that scoundrel Frank Houston."
All this was in truth so strange to Sir Thomas that he could not understand any of the existing perplexities. Why did Captain Batsby remain as a guest at Merle Park? He had no special dislike to the man, and when Lady Tringle had told him that she had asked the Captain to prolong his visit he had made no objection. But why should the man remain there, knowing as he did now that there was no chance of Ayala's coming to Merle Park? At last, on a certain Saturday evening, he did make inquiry on the subject. "What on earth is that man staying here for?" he said to his wife.
"I think he likes the place."
"Perhaps he likes the place as well as Septimus Traffick, and means to live here always!" Such allusions as these were constant with Sir Thomas, and were always received by Lady Tringle with dismay and grief. "When does he mean to go away?" asked Sir Thomas, gruffly.
Lady Tringle had felt that the time had come in which some word should be said as to the Captain's intentions; but she feared to say it. She dreaded to make the clear explanation to her husband. "Perhaps," said she, "he is becoming fond of some of the young ladies."
"Young ladies! What young ladies? Do you mean Lucy?"
"Oh dear no!" said Lady Tringle.
"Then what the deuce do you mean? He came here after Ayala, because I wanted to have all that nonsense settled about Tom. Ayala is not here, nor likely to be here; and I don't know why he should stay here philandering away his time. I hate men in a country-house who are thorough idlers. You had better take an opportunity of letting him know that he has been here long enough."
All this was repeated by Lady Tringle to Mrs. Traffick, and by Mrs. Traffick to Gertrude. Then they felt that this was no time for Captain Batsby to produce himself to Sir Thomas as a suitor for his youngest daughter.