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She got rid of her travelling dress and her boots, and let down her hair, and seated herself before the fire, that she might think of it all in her solitude. Was she or was she not glad, – glad in sober earnest, glad now the moment of her mirth had passed by, the mirth which had made her return to Stalham so easy for her, – was she or was she not glad that this change had come upon the Colonel, this return to his old ways? She had got her friend again, but she had lost her lover. She did not want the lover. She was sure of that. She was still sure that if a lover would come to her who would be in truth acceptable, – such a lover as would enable her to give herself up to him altogether, and submit herself to him as her lord and master, – he must be something different from Jonathan Stubbs. That had been the theory of her life for many months past, a theory on which she had resolved to rely with all her might from the moment in which this man had spoken to her of his love. Would she give way and render up herself and all her dreams simply because the man was one to be liked? She had declared to herself again and again that it should not be so. There should come the Angel of Light or there should come no lover for her. On that very morning as she was packing up her boxes at Kingsbury Crescent she had arranged the words in which, should he speak to her on the subject in the railway train, she would make him understand that it could never be. Surely he would understand if she told him so simply, with a little prayer that his suit might not be repeated. His suit had not been repeated. Nothing apparently had been further from his intention. He had been droll, pleasant, friendly, – just like his old dear self. For in truth the pleasantness and the novelty of his friendship had made him dear to her. He had gone back of his own accord to the old ways, without any little prayer from her. Now was she contented? As the question would thrust itself upon her in opposition to her own will, driving out the thoughts which she would fain have welcomed, she gazed listlessly at the fire. If it were so, then for what purpose, then for what reason, had Lady Albury procured for her the pale grey pearl-coloured dress?
And why were all these grand people at Stalham so good to her, – to her, a poor little girl, whose ordinary life was devoted to the mending of linen and to the furtherance of economy in the use of pounds of butter and legs of mutton? Why was she taken out of her own sphere and petted in this new luxurious world? She had a knowledge belonging to her, – if not quite what we may call common sense, – which told her that there must be some cause. Of some intellectual capacity, some appreciation of things and words which were divine in their beauty, she was half conscious. It could not be, she felt, that without some such capacity she should have imaged to herself that Angel of Light. But not for such capacity as that had she been made welcome at Stalham.As for her prettiness, her beauty of face and form, she thought about them not at all, – almost not at all. In appearing in that pale-pearl silk, with that gauzy scarf upon her shoulders, she would take pride. Not to be shamed among other girls by the poorness of her apparel was a pride to her. Perhaps to excel some others by the prettiness of her apparel might be a pride to her. But of feminine beauty, as a great gift bestowed upon her, she thought not at all. She would look in the mirror for the effect of the scarf, but not for the effect of the neck and shoulders beneath it. Could she have looked in any mirror for the effect of the dreams she had thus dreamed, – ah! that would have been the mirror in which she would have loved yet feared to look!
Why was Lady Albury so kind to her? Perhaps Lady Albury did not know that Colonel Stubbs had changed his mind. She would know it very soon, and then, maybe, everything would be changed. As she thought of this she longed to put the pearl silk dress aside, and not to wear it as yet, – to put it aside so that it might never be worn by her if circumstances should so require. It was to be hoped that the man had changed his mind, – and to be hoped that Lady Albury would know that he had done so. Then she would soon see whether there was a change. Could she not give a reason why she should not wear the dress this night? As she sat gazing at the fire a tear ran down her cheek. Was it for the dress she would not wear, or for the lover whom she would not love?
The question as to the dress was settled for her very soon. Lady Albury's maid came into the room, – not a chit of a girl without a thought of her own except as to her own grandness in being two steps higher than the kitchen-maid, – but a well-grown, buxom, powerful woman, who had no idea of letting such a young lady as Ayala do anything in the matter of dress but what she told her. When Ayala suggested something as to the next evening in reference to the pale-pearl silk the buxom powerful woman pooh-poohed her down in a moment. What; – after Sir Harry had taken so much trouble about having it made; having actually inquired about it with his own mouth. "To-night, Miss; you must wear it to-night! My lady would be quite angry!" "My lady not know what you wear! My lady knows what all the ladies wear, – morning, noon, and night." That little plan of letting the dress lie by till she should know how she should be received after Colonel Stubbs's change of mind had been declared, fell to the ground altogether under the hands of the buxom powerful woman.
When she went into the drawing-room some of the guests were assembled. Sir Harry and Lady Albury were there, and so was Colonel Stubbs. As she walked in Sir Harry was standing well in front of the fire, in advance of the rug, so as to be almost in the middle of the room. Captain Glomax was there also, and the discussion about the foxes was going on. It had occurred to Ayala that as the dress was a present from Sir Harry she must thank him. So she walked up to him and made a little curtsey just before him. "Am I nice, Sir Harry?" she said.
"Upon my word," said Sir Harry, "that is the best spent ten-pound-note I ever laid out in my life." Then he took her by the hand and gently turned her round, so as to look at her and her dress.
"I don't know whether I am nice, but you are," she said, curtseying again. Everybody felt that she had had quite a little triumph as she subsided into a seat close by Lady Albury, who called her. As she seated herself she caught the Colonel's eye, who was looking at her. She fancied that there was a tear in it. Then he turned himself and looked away into the fire.
"You have won his heart for ever," said Lady Albury.
"Whose heart?" asked Ayala, in her confusion.
"Sir Harry's heart. As for the other, cela va sans dire. You must go on wearing it every night for a week or Sir Harry will want to know why you have left it off. If the woman had made it on you it couldn't have fitted better. Baker, – " Baker was the buxom female, – "said that she knew it was right. You did that very prettily to Sir Harry. Now go up and ask Colonel Stubbs what he thinks of it."
"Indeed, I won't," said Ayala. Lady Albury, a few minutes afterwards, when she saw Ayala walking away towards the drawing-room leaning on the Colonel's arm, acknowledged to herself that she did at last understand it. The Colonel had been able to see it all, even without the dress, and she confessed in her mind that the Colonel had eyes with which to see, and ears with which to hear, and a judgment with which to appreciate. "Don't you think that girl very lovely?" she said to Lord Rufford, on whose arm she was leaning.
"Something almost more than lovely," said Lord Rufford, with unwonted enthusiasm.
It was acknowledged now by everybody. "Is it true about Colonel Stubbs and Miss Dormer?" whispered Lady Rufford to her hostess in the drawing-room.
"Upon my word, I never inquire into those things," said Lady Albury. "I suppose he does admire her. Everybody must admire her."
"Oh yes;" said Lady Rufford. "She is certainly very pretty. Who is she, Lady Albury?" Lady Rufford had been a Miss Penge, and the Penges were supposed to be direct descendants from Boadicea.
"She is Miss Ayala Dormer. Her father was an artist, and her mother was a very handsome woman. When a girl is as beautiful as Miss Dormer, and as clever, it doesn't much signify who she is." Then the direct descendant from Boadicea withdrew, holding an opinion much at variance with that expressed by her hostess.
"Who is that young lady who sat next to you?" asked Captain Glomax of Colonel Stubbs, after the ladies had gone.
"She is a Miss Ayala Dormer."
"Did I not see her out hunting with you once or twice early in the season?"
"You saw her out hunting, no doubt, and I was there. I did not specially bring her. She was staying here, and rode one of Albury's horses."
"Take her top and bottom, and all round," said Captain Glomax, "she is the prettiest little thing I've seen for many a day. When she curtsyed to Sir Harry in the drawing-room I almost thought that I should like to be a marrying man myself." Stubbs did not carry on the conversation, having felt displeased rather than otherwise by the admiration expressed.
"I didn't quite understand before," said Sir Harry to his wife that night, "what it was that made Jonathan so furious about that girl; but I think I see it now."
"Fine feathers make fine birds," said his wife, laughing.
"Feathers ever so fine," said Sir Harry, "don't make well-bred birds."
"To tell the truth," said Lady Albury, "I think we shall all have to own that Jonathan has been right."
This took place upstairs, but before they left the drawing-room Lady Albury whispered a few words to her young friend. "We have had a terrible trouble about you, Ayala."
"A trouble about me, Lady Albury? I should be so sorry."
"It is not exactly your fault; – but we haven't at all known what to do with that unfortunate man."
"What man?" asked Ayala, forgetful at the moment of all men except Colonel Stubbs.
"You naughty girl! Don't you know that my brother-in-law is broken-hearted about you?"
"Captain Batsby!" whispered Ayala, in her faintest voice.
"Yes; Captain Batsby. A Captain has as much right to be considered as a Colonel in such a matter as this." Here Ayala frowned, but said nothing. "Of course, I can't help it, who may break his heart, but poor Ben is always supposed to be at Stalham just at this time of the year, and now I have been obliged to tell him one fib upon another to keep him away. When he comes to know it all, what on earth will he say to me?"
"I am sure it has not been my fault," said Ayala.
"That's what young ladies always say when gentlemen break their hearts."
When Ayala was again in her room, and had got rid of the buxom female who came to assist her in taking off her new finery, she was aware of having passed the evening triumphantly. She was conscious of admiration. She knew that Sir Harry had been pleased by her appearance. She was sure that Lady Albury was satisfied with her, and she had seen something in the Colonel's glance that made her feel that he had not been indifferent. But in their conversation at the dinner table he had said nothing which any other man might not have said, if any other man could have made himself as agreeable. Those hunting days were all again described with their various incidents, with the great triumph over the brook, and Twentyman's wife and baby, and fat Lord Rufford, who was at the moment sitting there opposite to them; and the ball in London, with the lady who was thrown out of the window; and the old gentleman and the old lady of to-day who had been so peculiar in their remarks. There had been nothing else in their conversation, and it surely was not possible that a man who intended to put himself forward as a lover should have talked in such fashion as that! But then there were other things which occurred to her. Why had there been that tear in his eye? And that "cela va sans dire" which had come from Lady Albury in her railing mood; – what had that meant? Lady Albury, when she said that, could not have known that the Colonel had changed his purpose.
But, after all, what is a dress, let it be ever so pretty? The Angel of Light would not care for her dress, let her wear what she might. Were he to seek her because of her dress, he would not be the Angel of Light of whom she had dreamed. It was not by any dress that she could prevail over him. She did rejoice because of her little triumph; – but she knew that she rejoiced because she was not an Angel of Light herself. Her only chance lay in this, that the angels of yore did come down from heaven to ask for love and worship from the daughters of men.
As she went to bed, she determined that she would still be true to her dream. Not because folk admired a new frock would she be ready to give herself to a man who was only a man, – a man of the earth really; who had about him no more than a few of the real attributes of an Angel of Light.