"Oh yes, papa."
"Then he can afford to marry you without a fortune. Poor Mr. Houston could not have done so, because he had nothing of his own. I declare, as I think of it all, I am becoming very tender-hearted towards Mr. Houston. Don't you think we had better have Mr. Houston back again? I suppose he would come if you were to send for him." Then she burst into tears and went away and hid herself.
While Gertrude was still away on her ill-omened voyage in quest of a parson, Lady Tringle was stirred up to a great enterprise on behalf of her unhappy son. There wanted now little more than a fortnight before the starting of the ship which his father still declared should carry him out across the world, and he had progressed so far in contemplating the matter as to own to himself that it would be best for him to obey his father if there was no hope. But his mind was still swayed by a theory of love and constancy. He had heard of men who had succeeded after a dozen times of asking. If Stubbs, the hated but generous Stubbs, were in truth a successful rival, then indeed the thing would be over; – then he would go, the sooner the better; and, as he told his mother half-a-dozen times a day, it would matter nothing to him whether he were sent to Japan, or the Rocky Mountains, or the North Pole. In such case he would be quite content to go, if only for the sake of going. But how was he to be sure? He was, indeed, nearly sure in the other direction. If Ayala were in truth engaged to Colonel Stubbs it would certainly be known through Lucy. Then he had heard, through Lucy, that, though Ayala was staying at Stalham, the Colonel was not there. He had gone, and Ayala had remained week after week without him. Then, towards the end of March, he wrote a letter to his Uncle Reginald, which was very piteous in its tone; —
"Dear Uncle Reginald," the letter said,
I don't know whether you have heard of it, but I have been very ill – and unhappy. I am now in bed, and nobody here knows that I am sending this letter to you. It is all about Ayala, and I am not such a fool as to suppose that you can do anything for me. If you could I think you would, – but of course you can't. She must choose for herself, – only I do so wish that she should choose me. Nobody would ever be more kind to her. But you can tell me really how it is. Is she engaged to marry Colonel Stubbs? I know that she refused him, because he told me so himself. If she is not engaged to him I think that I would have another shy at it. You know what the poet says, – "Faint heart never won fair lady." Do tell me if she is or is not engaged. I know that she is with those Alburys, and that Colonel Stubbs is their friend. But they can't make her marry Colonel Stubbs any more than my friends can make her marry me. I wish they could. I mean my friends, not his.
If she were really engaged I would go away and hide myself in the furthermost corner of the world.Siberia or Central Africa would be the same to me. They would have little trouble in getting rid of me if I knew that it was all over with me. But I will never stir from these realms till I know my fate! – Therefore, waiting your reply, I am your affectionate nephew,Thomas Tringle, junior.
Mr. Dosett, when he received this letter, consulted his wife before he replied to it, and then did so very shortly; —
My dear Tom,
As far as I know, or her aunt, your cousin Ayala is not engaged to marry any one. But I should deceive you if I did not add my belief that she is resolved not to accept the offer you have done her the honour to make her.
Your affectionate uncle,Reginald Dosett.
The latter portion of this paragraph had no influence whatsoever on Tom. Did he not know all that before? Had he ever attempted to conceal from his relations the fact that Ayala had refused him again and again? Was not that as notorious to the world at large as a minister's promise that the income-tax should be abolished? But the income-tax was not abolished, – and, as yet, Ayala was not married to any one else. Ayala was not even engaged to any other suitor. Why should she not change her mind as well as the minister? Certainly he would not go either to the North Pole or to New York as long as there should be a hope of bliss for him in England. Then he called his mother to his bedside.
"Go to Stalham, my dear!" said his mother.
"Why not? They can't eat you. Lady Albury is no more than a Baronet's wife, – just the same as you."
"It isn't about eating me, Tom. I shouldn't know what to say to them."
"You need not tell them anything. Say that you had come to call upon your niece."
"But it would be such an odd thing to do. I never do call on Ayala, – even when I am in London."
"What does it matter being odd? You could learn the truth at any rate. If she does not care for any one else why shouldn't she have me? I could make her a baronet's wife, – that is, some day when the governor – "
"Don't, Tom; – don't talk in that way."
"I only mean in the course of nature. Sons do come after their fathers, you know. And as for money, I suppose the governor is quite as rich as those Alburys."
"I don't think that would matter."
"It does count, mother. I suppose Ayala is the same as other girls in that respect. I am sure I don't know why it is that she should have taken such an aversion to me. I suppose it is that she doesn't think me so much, – quite such a swell as some other men."
"One can't account for such things, Tom."
"No; – that is just it. And therefore she might come round without accounting for it. At any rate, you might try. You might tell her that it is ruining me; – that I shall have to go about wandering over all the world because she is so hard-hearted."
"I don't think I could, my dear," said Lady Tringle, after considering the matter for a while.
"Why not? Is it because of the trouble?"
"No, my dear; a mother does not think what trouble she may take for her child, if any good may be done. It is not the trouble. I would walk all round England to get her for you if that would do it."
"Why not, then? At any rate you might get an answer from her. She would tell you something of her intention. Mother, I shall never go away till I know more about it than I do now. The governor says that he will turn me out. Let him turn me out. That won't make me go away."
"Oh, Tom, he doesn't mean it."
"But he says it. If I knew that it was all over, – that every chance was gone, then I would go away."
"It is not the Alburys that I am afraid of," said Lady Tringle.
"It is your father. I cannot go if he will not let me." Nevertheless she promised before she left his bedside that she would ask Sir Thomas when he came home whether he would permit her to make the journey. All this occurred while Sir Thomas was away in quest of his daughter. And it may be imagined that immediately after his return he was hardly in a humour to yield to any such request as that which had been suggested. He was for the moment almost sick of his children, sick of Merle Park, sick of his wife, and inclined to think that the only comfort to be found in the world was to be had among his millions, in that little back parlour in Lombard Street.
It was on a Sunday that he returned, and on that day he did not see his son. On the Monday morning he went into the room, and Tom was about to press upon him the prayer which he had addressed to his mother when his lips were closed by his father's harshness. "Tom," he said, "you will be pleased to remember that you start on the nineteenth."
"But, father – "
"You start on the nineteenth," said Sir Thomas. Then he left the room, closing the door behind him with none of the tenderness generally accorded to an invalid.
"You have not asked him?" Tom said to his mother shortly afterwards.
"Not yet, my dear. His mind is so disturbed by this unfortunate affair."
"And is not my mind disturbed? You may tell him that I will not go, though he should turn me out a dozen times, unless I know more about it than I do now."
Sir Thomas came home again that evening, very sour in temper, and nothing could be said to him. He was angry with everybody, and Lady Tringle hardly dared to go near him, either then or on the following morning. On the Tuesday evening, however, he returned somewhat softened in his demeanour. The millions had perhaps gone right, though his children would go so wrong. When he spoke either to his younger daughter or of her he did so in that jeering tone which he afterwards always assumed when allusion was made to Captain Batsby, and which, disagreeable as it was, seemed to imply something of forgiveness. And he ate his dinner, and drank his glass of wine, without making any allusion to the parsimonious habits of his son-in-law, Mr. Traffick. Lady Tringle, therefore, considered that she might approach him with Tom's request.
"You go to Stalham!" he exclaimed.
"Well, my dear, I suppose I could see her?"
"And what could you learn from her?"
"I don't suppose I could learn much. She was always a pig-headed, stiff-necked creature. I am sure it wouldn't be any pleasure to me to see her."
"What good would it do?" demanded Sir Thomas.
"Well, my dear; he says that he won't go unless he can get a message from her. I am sure I don't want to go to Stalham. Nothing on earth could be so disagreeable. But perhaps I could bring back a word or two which would make him go upon his journey."
"What sort of word?"
"Why; – if I were to say that she were engaged to this Colonel Stubbs, then he would go. He says that he would start at once if he knew that his cousin were really engaged to somebody else."
"But if she be not?"
"Perhaps I could just colour it a little. It would be such a grand thing to get him away, and he in this miserable condition! If he were once on his travels, I do think he would soon begin to forget it all."
"Of course he would," said Sir Thomas.
"Then I might as well try. He has set his heart upon it, and if he thinks that I have done his bidding then he will obey you. As for turning him out, Tom, of course you do not really mean that!"
In answer to this Sir Thomas said nothing. He knew well enough that Tom couldn't be turned out. That turning out of a son is a difficult task to accomplish, and one altogether beyond the power of Sir Thomas. The chief cause of his sorrow lay in the fact that he, as the head of Travers and Treason, was debarred from the assistance and companionship of his son. All Travers and Treason was nothing to him, because his son would run so far away from the right path. There was nothing he would not do to bring him back. If Ayala could have been bought by any reasonable, or even unreasonable, amount of thousands, he would have bought her willingly for his boy's delight. It was a thing wonderful to him that Tom should have been upset so absolutely by his love. He did appreciate the feeling so far that he was willing to condone all those follies already committed if Tom would only put himself in the way of recovery. That massacreing of the policeman, those ill-spent nights at the Mountaineers and at Bolivia's, that foolish challenge, and the almost more foolish blow under the portico at the Haymarket, should all be forgiven if Tom would only consent to go through some slight purgation which would again fit him for Travers and Treason. And the purgation should be made as pleasant as possible. He should travel about the world with his pocket full of money and with every arrangement for luxurious comfort. Only he must go. There was no other way in which he could be so purged as to be again fit for Travers and Treason. He did not at all believe that Ayala could now be purchased. Whether pig-headed or not, Ayala was certainly self-willed. No good such as Tom expected would come from this projected visit to Stalham. But if he would allow it to be made in obedience to Tom's request, – then perhaps some tidings might be brought back which, whether strictly true or not, might induce Tom to allow himself to be put on board the ship. Arguing thus with himself, Sir Thomas at last gave his consent.
It was a most disagreeable task which the mother thus undertook. She could not go from Merle Park to Stalham and back in one day. It was necessary that she should sleep two nights in London. It was arranged, therefore, that she should go up to London on the Thursday; then make her journey down to Stalham and back on the Friday, and get home on the Saturday. There would then still remain nearly a fortnight before Tom would have to leave Merle Park. After much consideration it was decided that a note should be written to Ayala apprising her of her aunt's coming. "I hope Lady Albury will not be surprised at my visit," said the note, "but I am so anxious to see you, just for half-an-hour, upon a matter of great importance, that I shall run my chance." She would prefer to have seen the girl without any notice; but then, had no notice been given, the girl would perhaps have been out of the way. As it was a telegram was received back in reply. "I shall be at home. Lady Albury will be very glad to see you at lunch. She says there shall be a room all ready if you will sleep."
"I certainly shall not stay there," Lady Tringle said to Mrs. Traffick, "but it is as well to know that they will be civil to me."
"They are stuck-up sort of people I believe," said Augusta; "just like that Marchesa Baldoni, who is one of them. But, as to their being civil, that is a matter of course. They would hardly be uncivil to any one connected with Lord Boardotrade!"
Then came the Thursday on which the journey was to be commenced. As the moment came near Lady Tringle was very much afraid of the task before her. She was afraid even of her niece Ayala, who had assumed increased proportions in her eyes since she had persistently refused not only Tom but also Colonel Stubbs and Captain Batsby, and then in spite of her own connexion with Lord Boardotrade, – of whom since her daughter's marriage she had learned to think less than she had done before, – she did feel that the Alburys were fashionable people, and that Ayala as their guest had achieved something for herself. Stalham was, no doubt, superior in general estimation to Merle Park, and with her there had been always a certain awe of Ayala, which she had not felt in reference to Lucy. Ayala's demand that Augusta should go upstairs and fetch the scrap-book had had its effect, – as had also her success in going up St. Peter's and to the Marchesa's dance; and then there would be Lady Albury herself, – and all the Alburys! Only that Tom was very anxious, she would even now have abandoned the undertaking.
"Mother," said Tom, on the last morning, "you will do the best you can for me."
"Oh yes, my dear."
"I do think that, if you would make her understand the real truth, she might have me yet. She wouldn't like that a fellow should die."
"I am afraid that she is hard-hearted, Tom."
"I do not believe it, mother. I have seen her when she wouldn't kill even a fly. If she could only be made to see all the good she could do."
"I am afraid she won't care for that unless she can bring herself really to love you."
"Why shouldn't she love me?"
"Ah, my boy; how am I to tell you? Perhaps if you hadn't loved her so well it might have been different. If you had scorned her – "
"Scorn her! I couldn't scorn her. I have heard of that kind of thing before, but how is one to help oneself? You can't scorn a friend just because you choose to say so to yourself. When I see her she is something so precious to me that I could not be rough to her to save my life. When she first came it wasn't so. I could laugh at her then. But now – ! They talk about goddesses, but I am sure she is a goddess to me."
"If you had made no more than a woman of her it might have been better, Tom." All that was too late now. The doctrine which Lady Tringle was enunciating to her son, and which he repudiated, is one that has been often preached and never practised. A man when he is conscious of the presence of a mere woman, to whom he feels that no worship is due, may for his own purpose be able to tell a lie to her, and make her believe that he acknowledges a divinity in her presence. But, when he feels the goddess, he cannot carry himself before her as though she were a mere woman, and, as such, inferior to himself in her attributes. Poor Tom had felt the touch of something divine, and had fallen immediately prostrate before the shrine with his face to the ground. His chance with Ayala could in no circumstances have been great; but she was certainly not one to have yielded to a prostrate worshipper.
"Mother!" said Tom, recalling Lady Tringle as she was leaving the room.
"What is it, my dear? I must really go now or I shall be too late for the train."
"Mother, tell her, tell her, – tell her that I love her." His mother ran back, kissed his brow, and then left the room.
Lady Tringle spent that evening in Queen's Gate, where Sir Thomas remained with her. The hours passed heavily, as they had not much present to their mind with which to console each other. Sir Thomas had no belief whatever in the journey except in so far as it might help to induce his son to proceed upon his travels; – but his wife had been so far softened by poor Tom's sorrows as to hope a little, in spite of her judgment, that Ayala might yet relent. Her heart was soft towards her son, so that she felt that the girl would deserve all manner of punishment unless she would at last yield to Tom's wishes. She was all but sure that it could not be so, and yet, in spite of her convictions, she hoped.
On the next morning the train took her safely to the Stalham Road Station, and as she approached the end of her journey her heart became heavier within her. She felt that she could not but fail to give any excuse to the Alburys for such a journey, – unless, indeed, Ayala should do as she would have her. At the station she found the Albury carriage, with the Albury coachman, and the Albury footman, and the Albury liveries, waiting for her. It was a closed carriage, and for a moment she thought that Ayala might be there. In that case she could have performed her commission in the carriage, and then have returned to London without going to the house at all. But Ayala was not there. Lady Tringle was driven up to the house, and then taken through the hall into a small sitting-room, where for a moment she was alone. Then the door opened, and Ayala, radiant with beauty, in all the prettiness of her best morning costume, was in a moment in her arms. She seemed in her brightness to be different from that Ayala who had been known before at Glenbogie and in Rome. "Dear aunt," said Ayala, "I am so delighted to see you at Stalham!"
Ayala was compelled to consent to remain at Stalham. The "I don't think" which she repeated so often was, of course, of no avail to her. Sir Harry would be angry, and Lady Albury would be disgusted, were she to go, – and so she remained. There was to be a week before Colonel Stubbs would come, and she was to remain not only for the week but also for some short time afterwards, – so that there might be yet a few days left of hunting under the Colonel. It could not, surely, have been doubtful to her after she had read that letter, – with the postscript, – that if she remained her happiness would be insured! He would not have come again and insisted on her being there to receive him if nothing were to come of it. And yet she had fought for permission to return to Kingsbury Crescent after her little fashion, and had at last yielded, as she told Lady Albury, – because Sir Harry seemed to wish it. "Of course he wishes it," said Lady Albury. "He has got the pony on purpose, and nobody likes being disappointed when he has done a thing so much as Sir Harry." Ayala, delighted as she was, did not make her secret known. She was fluttered, and apparently uneasy, – so that her friend did not know what to make of it, or which way to take it. Ayala's secret was to herself a secret still to be maintained with holy reticence. It might still be possible that Jonathan Stubbs should never say another word to her of his love. If he did, – why then all the world might know. Then there would be no secret. Then she could sit and discuss her love, and his love, all night long with Lady Albury, if Lady Albury would listen to her. In the meantime the secret must be a secret. To confess her love, and then to have her love disappointed, – that would be death to her!
And thus it went on through the whole week, Lady Albury not quite knowing what to make of it. Once she did say a word, thinking that she would thus extract the truth, not as yet understanding how potent Ayala could be to keep her secret. "That man has, at any rate, been very true to you," she said. Ayala frowned, and shook her head, and would not say a word upon the subject. "If she did not mean to take him now, surely she would have gone," Lady Albury said to her husband.