"Good-bye, Miss Dormer," he said, with his pleasantest smile, and his pleasantest voice.
"Good-bye," she repeated. What would she not have given that her voice should be as pleasant as his, and her smile! But she failed so utterly that the little word was inaudible, – almost obliterated by the choking of a sob. How bitterly severe had that word, Miss Dormer, sounded from his mouth! Could he not have called her Ayala for the last time, – even though all the world should have heard it? She was wide awake in the morning and heard the wheels of his cart as he was driven off. As the sound died away upon her ear she felt that he was gone from her for ever. How had it been that she had said, "I cannot," so often, when all her heart was set upon "I can?"
And now it remained to her to take herself away from Stalham as fast as she might. She understood perfectly all those ideas which Lady Albury had expressed to her well-loved friend. She was nothing to anybody at Stalham, simply a young lady staying in the house; – as might be some young lady connected with them by blood, or some young lady whose father and mother had been their friends. She had been brought there to Stalham, now this second time, in order that Jonathan Stubbs might take her as his wife. Driven by some madness she had refused her destiny, and now nobody would want her at Stalham any longer. She had better begin to pack up at once, – and go. The coldness of the people, now that she had refused to do as she had been asked, would be unbearable to her. And yet she must not let it appear that Stalham was no longer dear to her merely because Colonel Stubbs had left it. She would let a day go by, and then say with all the ease she could muster that she would take her departure on the next. After that her life before her would be a blank. She had known up to this, – so at least she told herself, – that Jonathan Stubbs would afford her at any rate another chance. Now there could be no other chance.
The first blank day passed away, and it seemed to her almost as though she had no right to speak to any one. She was sure that Lady Rufford knew what had occurred, because nothing more was said as to the proposed visit. Mrs. Colonel Stubbs would have been welcome anywhere, but who was Ayala Dormer? Even though Lady Albury bade her come out in the carriage, it seemed to her to be done as a final effort of kindness. Of course they would be anxious to be rid of her. That evening the buxom woman did not come to help her dress herself. It was an accident. The buxom woman was wanted here and there till it was too late, and Ayala had left her room. Ayala, in truth, required no assistance in dressing. When the first agonizing moment of the new frock had been passed over, she would sooner have arrayed herself without assistance. But now it seemed as though the buxom woman was running away, because she, Ayala, was thought to be no longer worthy of her services.
On the next morning she began her little speech to Lady Albury.
"Or perhaps the next day," suggested Ayala.
"My dear, it has been arranged that you should stay here for another three weeks."
"I say it was arranged. Everybody understood it. I am sure your aunt understood it. Because one person goes, everybody else isn't to follow so as to break up a party. Honour among thieves!"
"Well; – anything else you like to call us all. The party has been made up. And to tell the truth I don't think that young ladies have the same right of changing their minds and rushing about as men assume. Young ladies ought to be more steady. Where am I to get another young lady at a moment's notice to play lawn tennis with Mr. Greene? Compose yourself and stay where you are like a good girl."
"What will Sir Harry say?"
"Sir Harry will probably go on talking about the Stillborough fox and quarreling with that odious Captain Glomax. That is, if you remain here. If you go all of a sudden, he will perhaps hint – "
"Hint what, Lady Albury?"
"Never mind. He shall make no hints if you are a good girl." Nothing was said at the moment about the Colonel, – nothing further than the little allusion made above. Then there came the lawn tennis, and Ayala regained something of her spirits as she contrived with the assistance of Sir Harry to beat Nina and the curate. But on the following day Lady Albury spoke out more plainly, "it was because of Colonel Stubbs that you said that you would go away."
Ayala paused a moment, and then answered stoutly, "Yes, it was because of Colonel Stubbs."
Ayala paused again and the stoutness almost deserted her. "Because – "
"Well, my dear?"
"I don't think I ought to be asked," said Ayala.
"Well, you shall not be asked. I will not be cruel to you. But do you not know that if I ask anything it is with a view to your own good?"
"Oh, yes," said Ayala.
"But though I may not ask I suppose I may speak." To this Ayala made no reply, either assenting or dissenting. "You know, do you not, that I and Colonel Stubbs love each other like brother and sister, – more dearly than many brothers and sisters?"
"I suppose so."
"And that therefore he tells me everything. He told me what took place in the wood, – and because of that he has gone away."
"Of course you are angry with me; – because he has gone away."
"I am sorry that he has gone, – because of the cause of it. I always wish that he should have everything that he desires; and now I wish that he should have this thing because he desires it above all other things." Does he desire it above all other things? – thought Ayala to herself. And, if it be really so, cannot I now tell her that he shall have it? Cannot I say that I too long to get it quite as eagerly as he longs to have it? The suggestion rushed quickly to her mind; but the answer to it came as quickly. No; – she would not do so. No offer of the kind would come from her. By what she had said must she abide, – unless, indeed, he should come to her again. "But why should you go, Ayala, because he has gone? Why should you say aloud that you had come here to listen to his offer, and that you had gone away as soon as you had resolved that, for this reason or that, it was not satisfactory to you?"
"Oh, Lady Albury."
"That would be the conclusion drawn. Remain here with us, and see if you can like us well enough to be one of us."
"Dear Lady Albury, I do love you dearly."
"What he may do I cannot say. Whether he may bring himself to try once again I do not know, – nor will I ask you whether there might possibly be any other answer were he to do so."
"No!" said Ayala, driven by a sudden fit of obstinacy which she could not control.
"I ask no questions about it, but I am sure it will be better for you to remain here for a few weeks. We will make you happy if we can, and you can learn to think over what has passed without emotion." Thus it was decided that Ayala should prolong her visit into the middle of March. She could not understand her own conduct when she again found herself alone. Why had she ejaculated that sudden "No," when Lady Albury had suggested to her the possibility of changing her purpose? She knew that she would fain change it if it were possible; and yet when the idea was presented to her she replied with a sudden denial of its possibility. But still there was hope, even though the hope was faint. "Whether he may bring himself to try again I do not know." So it was that Lady Albury had spoken of him, and of what Lady Albury said to her she now believed every word. "Whether he could bring himself!" Surely such a one as he would not condescend so far as that. But if he did one word should be sufficient. By no one else would she allow it to be thought, for an instant, that she would wish to reverse her decision. It must still be No to any other person from whom such suggestion might come. But should he give her the chance she would tell him instantly the truth of everything. "Can I love you! Oh, my love, it is impossible that I should not love you!" It would be thus that the answer should be given to him, should he allow her the chance of making it.
Three weeks passed by, and Ayala was still at Stalham. Colonel Stubbs had not as yet appeared, and very little had been said about him. Sir Henry would sometimes suggest that if he meant to see any more hunting he had better come at once, but this was not addressed to Ayala. She made up her mind that he would not come, and was sure that she was keeping him away by her presence. He could not – "bring himself to try over again," as Lady Albury had put it! Why should he – "bring himself" – to do anything on behalf of one who had treated him so badly? It had been settled that she should remain to the 25th of March, when the month should be up from the time in which Lady Albury had decided upon that as the period of her visit. Of her secret she had given no slightest hint. If he ever did come again it should not be because she had asked for his coming. As far as she knew how to carry out such a purpose, she concealed from Lady Albury anything like a feeling of regret. And she was so far successful that Lady Albury thought it expedient to bring in other assistance to help her cause, – as will be seen by a letter which Ayala received when the three weeks had passed by.
In the meantime there had been at first dismay, then wonder, and lastly, some amusement, at the condition of Captain Batsby. When Captain Batsby had first learned at Merle Park that Ayala and Jonathan Stubbs were both at Stalham, he wrote very angrily to Lady Albury. In answer to this his sister-in-law had pleaded guilty, – but still defending herself. How could she make herself responsible for the young lady, – who did not indeed seem ready to bestow her affections on any of her suitors? But still she acknowledged that a little favour was being shown to Colonel Stubbs, – wishing to train the man to the idea that, in this special matter, Colonel Stubbs must be recognised as the Stalham favourite. Then no further letters were received from the Captain, but there came tidings that he was staying at Merle Park. Ayala heard continually from her sister, and Lucy sent some revelations as to the Captain. He seemed to be very much at home at Merle Park, said Lucy; and then, at last, she expressed her own opinion that Captain Batsby and Gertrude were becoming very fond of each other. And yet the whole story of Gertrude and Mr. Houston was known, of course, to Lucy, and through Lucy to Ayala. To Ayala these sudden changes were very amusing, as she certainly did not wish to retain her own hold on the Captain, and was not specially attached to her cousin Gertrude. From Ayala the tidings went to Lady Albury, and in this way the fears which had been entertained as to the Captain's displeasure were turned to wonder and amusement. But up to this period nothing had been heard of the projected trip to Ostend.
Then came the letter to Ayala, to which allusion has been made, a letter from her old friend the Marchesa, who was now at Rome. It was ostensibly in answer to a letter from Ayala herself, but was written in great part in compliance with instructions received from Lady Albury. It was as follows; —
Dear Ayala, —
I was glad to get your letter about Nina. She is very happy, and Lord George is here. Indeed, to tell the truth, they arrived together, – which was not at all proper; but everything will be made proper on Tuesday, 8th April, which is the day at last fixed for the wedding. I wish you could have been here to be one of the bridesmaids. Nina says that you will have it that the Pope is to marry her. Instead of that it is going to be done by Lord George's uncle, the Dean of Dorchester, who is coming for this purpose. Then they are going up to a villa they have taken on Como, where we shall join them some time before the spring is over. After that they seem to have no plans, – except plans of connubial bliss, which is never to know any interruption.
Now that I have come to connubial bliss, and feel so satisfied as to Nina's prospects, I have a word or two to say about the bliss of somebody else. Nina is my own child, and of course comes first. But one Jonathan Stubbs is my nephew, and is also very near to my heart. From all that I hear, I fancy that he has set his mind also on connubial bliss. Have you not heard that it is so?
A bird has whispered to me that you have not been kind to him. Why should it be so? Nobody knows better than I do that a young lady is entitled to the custody of her own heart, and that she should not be compelled, or even persuaded, to give her hand in opposition to her own feelings. If your feelings and your heart are altogether opposed to the poor fellow, of course there must be an end of it. But I had thought that from the time you first met him he had been a favourite of yours; – so much so that there was a moment in which I feared that you might think too much of the attentions of a man who has ever been a favourite with all who have known him. But I have found that in this I was altogether mistaken. When he came that evening to see the last of you at the theatre, taking, as I knew he did, considerable trouble to release himself from other engagements, I was pretty sure how it was going to be. He is not a man to be in love with a girl for a month and then to be in love with another the next month. When once he allowed himself to think that he was in love, the thing was done and fixed either for his great delight, – or else to his great trouble.
I knew how it was to be, and so it has been. Am I not right in saying that on two occasions, at considerable intervals, he has come to you and made distinct offers of his hand? I fear, though I do not actually know it, that you have just as distinctly rejected those offers. I do not know it, because none but you and he can know the exact words with which you received from him the tender of all that he had to give you. I can easily believe that he, with all his intelligence, might be deceived by the feminine reserve and coyness of such a girl as you. If it be so, I do pray that no folly may be allowed to interfere with his happiness and with yours.
I call it folly, not because I am adverse to feminine reserve, not because I am prone to quarrel even with what I call coyness; but because I know his nature so well, and feel that he would not bear rebuffs of which many another man would think nothing; that he would not bring himself to ask again, perhaps even for a seventh time, as they might do. And, if it be that by some frequent asking his happiness and yours could be insured, would it not be folly that such happiness should be marred by childish disinclination on your part to tell the truth?
As I said before, if your heart be set against him, there must be an end of it. I can understand that a girl so young as you should fail to see the great merit of such a man. I therefore write as I do, thinking it possible that in this respect you may be willing to accept from my mouth something as to the man which shall be regarded as truth. It is on the inner man, on his nature and disposition, that the happiness of a wife must depend. A more noble nature, a more truthful spirit than his, I have never met. He is one on whom in every phase of life you may depend, – or I may depend, – as on a rock. He is one without vacillation, always steady to his purpose, requiring from himself in the way of duty and conduct infinitely more than he demands from those around him. If ever there was a man altogether manly, he is one. And yet no woman, no angel, ever held a heart more tender within his bosom. See him with children! Think of his words when he has spoken to yourself! Remember the estimation in which those friends hold him who know him best, – such as I and your friend, Lady Albury, and Sir Harry, and his cousin Nina. I could name many others, but these are those with whom you have seen him most frequently. If you can love such a man, do you not think that he would make you happy? And if you cannot, must there not be something wrong in your heart, – unless indeed it be already predisposed to some one else? Think of all this, dear Ayala, and remember that I am alwaysYour affectionate friend,Julia Baldoni.
Ayala's first feeling as she read the letter was a conviction that her friend had altogether wasted her labour in writing it. Of what use was it to tell her of the man's virtues, – to tell her that the man's heart was as tender as an angel's, his truth as assured as a god's, his courage that of a hero, – that he was possessed of all those attributes which should by right belong to an Angel of Light? She knew all that without requiring the evidence of a lady from Rome, – having no need of any evidence on that matter from any other human being. Of what use could any evidence be on such a subject from the most truthful lips that ever spoke! Had she not found it all out herself would any words from others have prevailed with her? But she had found it out herself. It was already her gospel. That he was tender and true, manly, heroic, – as brightly angelic as could be any Angel of Light, – was already an absolute fact to her. No! – her heart had never been predisposed to any one else. It was of him she had always dreamed even long before she had seen him. He was the man, perfect in all good things, who was to come and take her with him; – if ever man should come and take her. She wanted no Marchesa Baldoni now to tell her that the angel had in truth come and realised himself before her in all his glory.
But she had shown herself to be utterly unfit for the angel. Though she recognised him now, she had not recognised him in time: – and even when she had recognised him she had been driven by her madness to reject him. Feminine reserve and coyness! Folly! Yes, indeed; she knew all that, too, without need of telling from her elders. The kind of coyness which she had displayed had been the very infatuation of feminine imbecility. It was because nature had made her utterly unfit for such a destiny that she had been driven by coyness and feminine reserve to destroy herself! It was thus that Ayala conversed with herself.
"I know his nature so well, and feel that he would not bear rebuffs of which many another man would think nothing." Thus, she did not doubt, the Marchesa had spoken very truly. But of what value was all that now? She could not recall the rebuff. She could not now eradicate the cowardice which had made her repeat those wicked fatal words, – "I cannot." "I cannot." "I cannot." The letter had come too late, for there was nothing she could do to amend her doom. She must send some answer to her friend in Italy, but there could be nothing in her answer to her to assist her. The feminine reserve and coyness had become odious to her, – as it had been displayed by herself to him. But it still remained in full force as to any assistance from others. She could not tell another to send him back to her. She could not implore help in her trouble. If he would come himself, – himself of his own accord, – himself impelled once more by his great tenderness of heart, – himself once more from his real, real love; then there should be no more coyness. "If you will still have me, – oh yes!"
But there was the letter to be written. She so wrote it that by far the greater part of it, – the larger part at least, – had reference to Nina and her wedding. "I will think of her on the 8th of April," she said. "I shall then be at home at Kingsbury Crescent, and I shall have nothing else to think of." In that was her first allusion to her own condition with her lover. But on the last side of the sheet it was necessary that she should say more than that. Something must be said thoughtfully, carefully, and gratefully in reply to so much thought, and care, and friendship, as had been shown to her. But it must be so written that nothing of her secret should be read in it. The task was so troublesome that she was compelled to recopy the whole of her long letter, because the sentences as first written did not please her. "I am so much obliged to you," she said, "by your kindness about Colonel Stubbs. He did do me the honour of asking me to be his wife. And I felt it so. You are not to suppose that I did not understand that. It is all over now, and I cannot explain to you why I felt that it would not do. It is all over, and therefore writing about it is no good. Only I want you to be sure of two things, – that there is no one else, and that I do love you so much for all your kindness. And you may be sure of a third thing, too, – that it is all over. I do hope that he will still let me be his friend. As a friend I have always liked him so much." It was brave and bold, she thought, in answer to such words as the Marchesa's; but she did not know how to do it any better.
On Tuesday, the 25th of March, she was to return to Kingsbury Crescent. Various little words were said at Stalham indicating an intended break in the arrangement. "The Captain certainly won't come now," said Lady Albury, alluding to the arrangement as though it had been made solely with the view of saving Ayala from an encounter with her objectionable lover. "Croppy has come back," said Sir Harry one day; – Croppy being the pony which Ayala had ridden. "Miss Dormer can have him now for what little there is left of the hunting." This was said on the Saturday before she was to go. How could she ride Croppy for the rest of the hunting when she would be at Kingsbury Crescent? On neither of these occasions did she say a word, but she assumed that little look of contradiction which her friends at Stalham already knew how to read. Then, on the Sunday morning, there came a letter for Lady Albury. "What does he say?" asked Sir Harry, at breakfast. "I'll show it you before you go to church," answered his wife. Then Ayala knew that the letter was from Colonel Stubbs.