"I should like it, of course," whispered Ayala.
"And so should I, – so much! I suppose all these men here would think me an ass if they knew how little I care about the day's work, – whether we find, or whether we run, or whether we kill, – just because the pony is not here. If the pony were here I should have that feeling of expectation of joy, which is so common to girls when some much-thought-of ball or promised pleasure is just before them." Then Tony went off with his hounds, and Jonathan, mounting his horse, followed with the ruck.
Ayala knew very well what the pony meant, as spoken of by the Colonel. When he declared that he regretted the pony, it was because the pony might have carried herself. He had meant her to understand that the much-thought-of ball or promised pleasure would have been the delight of again riding with herself. And then he had again called her Ayala. She could remember well every occasion on which he had addressed her by her Christian name. It had been but seldom. Once, however, it had occurred in the full flow of their early intimacy, before that love-making had been begun. It had struck her as being almost wrong, but still as very pleasant. If it might be made right by some feeling of brotherly friendship, how pleasant would it be! And now she would like it again, if only it might be taken as a sign of friendship rather than of love. It never occurred to her to be angry as she would have been angry with any other man. How she would have looked at Captain Batsby had he dared to call her Ayala! Colonel Stubbs should call her Ayala as long as he pleased, – if it were done only in friendship.
After that they were driven about for a while, seeing what Tony did with the hounds, as tidings came to them now and again that one fox had broken this way and another had gone the other. But Ayala, through it all, could not interest herself about the foxes. She was thinking only of Jonathan Stubbs. She knew that she was pleased because he had spoken to her, and had said kind, pleasant words to her. She knew that she had been displeased while he had sat apart from her, talking to others. But yet she could not explain to herself why she had been either pleased or displeased. She feared that there was more than friendship, – than mere friendship, in that declaration of his that he did in truth regret the pony. His voice had been, oh, so sweet as he had said it! Something told her that men do not speak in mere friendship after that fashion. Not even in the softness of friendship between a man and a woman will the man's voice become as musical as that! Young as she was, child as she was, there was an instinct in her breast which declared to her that it was so. But then, if it were so, was not everything again wrong with her? If it were so, then must that condition of things be coming back which it had been, and still was her firm resolve to avoid. And yet, as the carriage was being driven about, and as the frequent exclamations came that the fox had traversed this way or that, her pride was gratified and she was happy.
"What was Colonel Stubbs saying to you?" asked Nina, when they were at home at the house after lunch.
"He was talking about the dear pony which I used to ride."
"About nothing else?"
"No; – about nothing else." This Ayala said with a short, dry manner of utterance which she would assume when she was determined not to have a subject carried on.
"Ayala, why do you not tell me everything? I told you everything as soon as it happened."
"Nothing has happened."
"I know he asked you," said Nina.
"And I answered him."
"Is that to be everything?"
"Yes; – that is to be everything," said Ayala, with a short, dry manner of utterance.
There was nothing done on that day in the way of sport. Glomax thought that Tony had been idle, and had made a holiday of the day from the first. But Sir Harry declared that there had not been a yard of scent. The buttered toast, however, was eaten, and the regular sporting conversation was carried on. Ayala, however, was not there to hear it. Ayala was in her own room dreaming.
She was taken in to dinner by a curate in the neighbourhood, – to whom she endeavoured to make herself very pleasant, while the Colonel sat at her other side. The curate had a good deal to say as to lawn tennis. If the weather remained as it was, it was thought that they could all play lawn tennis on the Tuesday, – when there would be no hunting. The curate was a pleasant young fellow, and Ayala devoted herself to him and to their joint hopes for next Tuesday. Colonel Stubbs never once attempted to interfere with the curate's opportunity. There was Lady Rufford on the other side of him, and to Lady Rufford he said all that he did say during dinner. At one period of the repast she was more than generally lively, because she felt herself called upon to warn her husband that an attack of the gout was imminent, and would be certainly produced instantaneously if he could not deny himself the delight of a certain diet which was going the round of the table. His lordship smiled and denied himself, – thinking, as he did so, whether another wife, plus the gout, would or would not have been better for him. All this either amused Colonel Stubbs so sufficiently, or else made him so thoughtful, that he made no attempt to interfere with the curate. In the evening there was again music, – which resulted in a declaration made upstairs by Sir Harry to his wife that that wife of Rufford's was a confounded bore. "We all knew that, my dear, as soon as he married her," said Lady Albury.
"Why did he marry a bore?"
"Because he wanted a wife to look after himself, and not to amuse his friends. The wonder used to be that he had done so well."
Not a word had there been, – not a word, since that sound of "Ayala" had fallen upon her ears. No; – he was not handsome, and his name was Jonathan Stubbs; – but surely no voice so sweet had ever fallen from a man's lips! So she sat and dreamed far into the night. He, the Angel of Light, would certainly have a sweeter voice! That was an attribute without which no angel could be angelic! As to the face and the name, that would not perhaps signify. But he must have an intellect high soaring, a soul tuned to music, and a mind versed in nothing but great matters. He might be an artist, or more probably a poet; – or perhaps a musician. Yet she had read of poets, artists, and musicians, who had misused their wives, been fond of money, and had perhaps been drunkards. The Angel of Light must have the gifts, and must certainly be without the vices.
The next day was Sunday and they all went to church. In the afternoon they, as many of them as pleased, were to walk as far as Gobblegoose Wood, which was only three miles from the house. They could not hunt and therefore they must go to the very scene of the late contest and again discuss it there. Sir Harry and the Captain would walk and so would Ayala and Nina and some others. Lord Rufford did not like walking, and Lady Rufford would stay at home to console him. Ayala used her little wiles to keep herself in close company with Nina; but the Colonel's wiles were more effective; – and then, perhaps, Nina assisted the Colonel rather than Ayala. It came to pass that before they had left Gobblegoose Wood Ayala and the Colonel were together. When it was so he did not beat about the bush for a moment longer. He had fixed his opportunity for himself and he put it to use at once. "Ayala," he said, "am I to have any other answer?"
"Nay, my dearest, – my own, own dearest as I fain would have you, – who shall say what answer but you? Ayala, you know that I love you!"
"I thought you had given it up."
"Given it up. Never, – never! Does a man give up his joy, – the pride of his life, – the one only delight on which his heart has set itself! No, my darling, I have not given it up. Because you would not have it as I wished when I first spoke to you, I have not gone on troubling you. I thought I would wait till you were used again to the look of me, and to my voice. I shall never give it up, Ayala. When you came into the room that night with your new frock on – " Then he paused, and she glanced round upon him, and saw that a tear again was in his eye. "When you came in and curtseyed to Sir Harry I could hardly keep within myself because I thought you were so beautiful."
"It was the new gown which he had given me."
"No, my pet; – no! You may add a grace to a dress, but it can do but little for you. It was the little motion, the little word, the light in your eye! It twinkles at me sometimes when you glance about, so that I do not know whether it is meant for me or not. I fear that it is never meant for me."
"It is meant for nothing," said Ayala.
"And yet it goes into my very bosom. When you were talking to that clergyman at dinner I could see every sparkle that came from it. Then I wonder to myself whether you can ever be thinking of me as I am always thinking of you." She knew that she had been thinking of him every waking moment since she had been at Albury and through many of her sleeping moments also. "Ayala, one little word, one other glance from your eyes, one slightest touch from your hand upon my arm, shall tell me, – shall tell me, – shall tell me that I am the happiest, the proudest man in all the world." She walked on steadfastly, closing her very teeth against a word, with her eyes fixed before her so that no slightest glance should wander. Her two hands were in her little muff, and she kept them with her fingers clasped together, as though afraid lest one might rebel, and fly away, and touch the sleeve of his coat. "Ayala, how is it to be with me?"
"I cannot," she said sternly. And her eyes were still fixed before her, and her fingers were still bound in one with another. And yet she loved him. Yet she knew that she loved him. She could have hung upon his arm and smiled up into his face, and frowned her refusal only with mock anger as he pressed her to his bosom, – only that those dreams were so palpable to her and so dear, had been to her so vast a portion of her young life! "I cannot," she said again. "I cannot."
"Is that to be your answer for ever?" To this she made no immediate reply. "Must it be so, Ayala?"
"I cannot," she said. But the last little word was so impeded by the sobs which she could not restrain as almost to be inaudible.
"I will not make you unhappy, Ayala." Yes, she was unhappy. She was unhappy because she knew that she could not rule herself to her own happiness; because, even at this moment, she was aware that she was wrong. If she could only release part of herself from the other, then could she fly into his arms and tell him that that spirit which had troubled her had flown. But the spirit was too strong for her, and would not fly. "Shall we go and join them?" he asked her in a voice altered, but still so sweet to her ears.
"If you think so," she replied.
"Perhaps it will be best, Ayala. Do not be angry with me now. I will not call you so again." Angry! Oh, no! She was not angry with him! But it was very bitter to her to be told that she should never hear the word again from his lips.
"The hunted fox never went up Buddlecombe Hill; – never. If he did I'll eat every fox in the Rufford and Ufford country." This was heard, spoken in most angry tones by Captain Glomax, as the Colonel and Ayala joined the rest of the party.
Ayala, on her return from the walk to the wood, spent the remainder of the afternoon in tears. During the walk she kept close to Sir Harry, pretending to listen to the arguments about the fox, but she said nothing. Her ears were really intent on endeavouring to catch the tones of her lover's voice as he went on in front of them talking to Nina. Nothing could be more pleasant than the sound as he said a word or two now and again, encouraging Nina in her rhapsodies as to Lord George and all Lord George's family. But Ayala learned nothing from that. She had come to know the man well enough to be aware that he could tune his voice to the occasion, and could hide his feelings let them be ever so strong. She did not doubt his love now. She did not doubt but that at this moment his heart was heavy with rejected love. She quite believed in him. But nevertheless his words were pleasant and kind as he encouraged Nina.
Nor did she doubt her own love. She was alone in her room that afternoon till she told herself at last the truth. Oh, yes; she loved him. She was sure of that. But now he was gone! Why had she been so foolish? Then it seemed as though at that moment the separation took place between herself and the spirit which had haunted her. She seemed to know now, – now at this very moment, – that the man was too good for her. The knowledge had been coming to her. It had almost come when he had spoken to her in the wood. If it could only have been that he should have delayed his appeal to her yet for another day or two! She thought now that if he could have delayed it but for a few hours the cure would have been complete. If he had talked to her as he so well knew how to talk while they were in the wood together, while they were walking home, – so as to have exorcised the spirit from her by the sweetness of his words, – and then have told her that there was his love to have if she chose to have it, then she thought she would have taken it. But he had come to her while those words which she had prepared under the guidance of the spirit were yet upon her tongue. "I cannot," she had said. "I cannot." But she had not told him that she did not love him.
"I did love him," she said to herself, almost acknowledging that the spirit had been wholly exorcised. The fashion of her mind was altogether different from that which had so strongly prevailed with her. He was an honest, noble man, high in the world's repute, clever, a gentleman, a man of taste, and possessed of that gentle ever-present humour which was so inexpressibly delightful to her. She never again spoke to herself even in her thoughts of that Angel of Light, – never comforted herself again with the vision of that which was to come! There had appeared to her a man better than all other men, and when he had asked her for her hand she had simply said, – "I cannot." And yet she had loved him all the time. How foolish, how false, how wicked she had been! It was thus that she thought of it all as she sat there alone in her bedroom through the long hours of the afternoon. When they sent up for her asking her to come down, she begged that she might be allowed to remain there till dinner-time, because she was tired with her walk.
He would not come again now. Oh, no, – he was too proud, too firm, too manly for that. It was not for such a one as he to come whining after a girl, – like her cousin Tom. Would it be possible that she should even yet tell him? Could she say to him one little word, contradicting that which she had so often uttered in the wood? "Now I can," once whispered in his ear, would do it all. But as to this she was aware that there was no room for hope. To speak such a word, low as it might be spoken, simple and little as it might be, was altogether impossible. She had had her chance and had lost it, – because of those idle dreams. That the dreams had been all idle she declared to herself, – not aware that the Ayala whom her lover had loved would not have been an Ayala to be loved by him, but for the dreams. Now she must go back to her uncle and aunt and to Kingsbury Crescent, with the added sorrow that the world of dreams was closed to her for ever. When the maid came to her she consented to have the frock put on, the frock which Sir Harry had given her, boldly resolving to struggle through her sorrow till Lady Albury should have dismissed her to her home. Nobody would want her now at Stalham, and the dismissal would soon come.
While she had been alone in her room the Colonel had been closeted with Lady Albury. They had at least been thus shut up together for some half-hour during which he had told his tale. "I have to own," said he, half-laughing as he began his tale, "that I thoroughly respect Miss Dormer."
"Why is she to be called Miss Dormer?"
"Because she has shown herself worthy of my respect."
"What is it that you mean, Jonathan?"
"She knew her own mind when she told me at first that she could not accept the offer which I did myself the honour of making her, and now she sticks to her purpose. I think that a young lady who will do that should be respected."
"She has refused you again?"
"Well, I hardly know that I am prepared to explain the 'as how' even to you. I am about as thick-skinned a man in such matters as you may find anywhere, but I do not know that even I can bring myself to tell the 'as how.' The 'as how' was very clear in one respect. It was manifest that she knew her own mind, which is a knowledge not in the possession of all young ladies. She told me that she could not marry me."
"I do not believe it."
"Not that she told me so?"
"Not that she knew her own mind. She is a little simple fool, who with some vagary in her brain is throwing away utterly her own happiness, while she is vexing you."
"As to the vexation you are right."
"Cross-grained little idiot!"
"An idiot she certainly is not; and as to being cross-grained I have never found it. A human being with the grains running more directly all in the same way I have never come across."
"Do not talk to me, Jonathan, like that," she said. "When I call her cross-grained I mean that she is running counter to her own happiness."
"I cannot tell anything about that. I should have endeavoured, I think, to make her happy. She has certainly run counter to my happiness."
"What; – as to this very moment! I shall leave Stalham to-morrow."
"Why should you do that? Let her go if one must go."
"That is just what I want to prevent. Why should she lose her little pleasure?"
"You don't suppose that we can make the house happy to her now! Why should we care to do so when she will have driven you away?" He sat silent for a minute or two looking at the fire, with his hands on his two knees. "You must acknowledge, Jonathan," continued she, "that I have taken kindly to this Ayala of yours."
"I do acknowledge it."
"But it cannot be that she should be the same to us simply as a young lady, staying here as it were on her own behalf, as she was when we regarded her as your possible wife. Then every little trick and grace belonging to her endeared itself to us because we regarded her as one who was about to become one of ourselves. But what are her tricks and graces to us now?"
"They are all the world to me," said the Colonel.
"But you must wipe them out of your memory, – unless, indeed, you mean to ask her again."
"Ah! – that is it."
"You will ask her again?"
"I do not say so; but I do not wish to rob myself of the chance. It may be that I shall. Of course I should to-morrow if I thought there was a hope. To-morrow there would be none, – but I should like to know, that I could find her again in hands so friendly as yours, if at the end of a month I should think myself strong enough to encounter the risk of another refusal. Would Sir Harry allow her to remain here for another month?"
"He would say, probably, nothing about it."
"My plan is this," he continued; "let her remain here, say, for three weeks or a month. Do you continue all your kindness to her, – if not for her sake then for mine. Let her feel that she is made one of yourselves, as you say."
"That will be hard," said Lady Albury.
"It would not be hard if you thought that she was going to become so at last. Try it, for my sake. Say not a word to her about me, – though not shunning my name. Be to her as though I had told you nothing of this. Then when the period is over I will come again, – if I find that I can do so. If my love is still stronger than my sense of self-respect, I shall do so." All this Lady Albury promised to do, and then the interview between them was over.
"Colonel Stubbs is going to Aldershot to-morrow," said she to Ayala in the drawing-room after dinner. "He finds now that he cannot very well remain away." There was no hesitation in her voice as she said this, and no look in her eye which taught Ayala to suppose that she had heard anything of what had occurred in the wood.
"Is he indeed?" said Ayala, trying, but in vain, to be equally undemonstrative.
"It is a great trouble to us, but we are quite unable to prevent it, – unless you indeed can control him."
"I cannot control him," said Ayala, with that fixed look of resolution with which Lady Albury had already become familiar.
That evening before they went to bed the Colonel bade them all good-bye, as he intended to start early in the morning. "I never saw such a fellow as you are for sudden changes," said Sir Harry.
"What is the good of staying here for hunting when the ground and Tony's temper are both as hard as brick-bats. If I go now I can get another week further on in March if the rain should come." With this Sir Harry seemed to be satisfied; but Ayala felt sure that Tony's temper and the rain had had nothing to do with it.