"She is a pretty little girl enough," said Sir Harry, "but I doubt whether she is worth all the trouble."
"Of course she is not. What pretty little girl ever was? But as long as he thinks her worth it the trouble has to be taken."
"Of course she'll accept him?"
"I am not at all so sure of it. She has been made to believe that you wanted her to stay, and therefore she has stayed. She is quite master enough of herself to ride out hunting with him again and then to refuse him." And so Lady Albury doubted up to the Sunday, and all through the Sunday, – up to the very moment when the last preparations were to be made for the man's arrival.
The train reached the Stalham Road Station at 7 p. m., and the distance was five miles. On Sundays they usually dined at Stalham at 7.30. The hour fixed was to be 8 on this occasion, – and even with this there would be some bustling. The house was now nearly empty, there being no visitors there except Mr. and Mrs. Gosling and Ayala. Lady Albury gave many thoughts to the manner of the man's reception, and determined at last that Jonathan should have an opportunity of saying a word to Ayala immediately on his arrival if he so pleased. "Mind you are down at half-past seven," she said to Ayala, coming to her in her bedroom.
"I thought we should not dine till eight."
"There is no knowing. Sir Harry is so fussy. I shall be down, and I should like you to be with me." Then Ayala promised. "And mind you have his frock on."
"You'll make me wear it out before any one else sees it," she said, laughing. But again she promised. She got a glimmer of light from it all, nearly understanding what Lady Albury intended. But against such intentions as these she had no reason to fight. Why should she not be ready to see him? Why should she not have on her prettiest dress when he came? If he meant to say the word, – then her prettiest dress would all be too poor, and her readiest ears not quick enough to meet so great a joy. If he were not to say the other word, – then should she shun him by staying behind, or be afraid of the encounter? Should she be less gaily attired because it would be unnecessary to please his eye?
Oh, no! "I'll be there at half-past seven," she said. "But I know the train will be late, and Sir Harry won't get his dinner till nine."
"Then, my dear, great as the Colonel is, he may come in and get what is left for him in the middle. Sir Harry will not wait a minute after eight."
The buxom woman came and dressed her. The buxom woman probably knew what was going to happen; – was perhaps more keenly alive to the truth than Lady Albury herself. "We have taken great care of it, haven't we, Miss?" she said, as she fastened the dress behind. "It's just as new still."
"New!" said Ayala. "It has got to be new with me for the next two years."
"I don't know much about that, Miss. Somebody will have to pay for a good many more new dresses before two years are over, I take it." To this Ayala made no answer, but she was quite sure that the buxom woman intended to imply that Colonel Stubbs would have to pay for the new dresses.
Punctually at half-past seven she was in the drawing-room, and there she remained alone for a few minutes.
There was a clock on the mantelpiece to which her eye was continually turned. It now wanted twenty minutes to eight, and she was aware that if the train was punctual he might now be at the hall-door. At this moment Lady Albury entered the room. "Your knight has come at last," she said; "I hear his wheels on the gravel."
"He is no knight of mine," said Ayala, with that peculiar frown of hers.
"Whose ever knight he is, there he is. Knight or not, I must go and welcome him." Then Lady Albury hurried out of the room and Ayala was again alone. The door had been left partly open, so that she could hear the sound of voices and steps across the inner hall or billiard-room. There were the servants waiting upon him, and Sir Harry bidding him to go up and dress at once so as not to keep the whole house waiting, and Lady Albury declaring that there was yet ample time as the dinner certainly would not be on the table for half-an-hour. She heard it all, and heard him to whom all her thoughts were now given laughing as he declared that he had never been so cold in his life, and that he certainly would not dress himself till he had warmed his fingers. She was far away from the door, not having stirred from the spot on which she was standing when Lady Albury left her; but she fancied that she heard the murmur of some slight whisper, and she told herself that Lady Albury was telling him where to seek her. Then she heard the sound of the man's step across the billiard-room, she heard his hand upon the door, and there he was in her presence!
When she thought of it all afterwards, as she did so many scores of times, she never could tell how it had occurred. When she accused him in her playfulness, telling him that he had taken for granted that of which he had had no sign, she never knew whether there had been aught of truth in her accusation. But she did know that he had hardly closed the door behind him when she was in his arms, and felt the burning love of his kisses upon her cheeks. There had been no more asking whether he was to have any other answer. Of that she was quite sure. Had there been such further question she would have answered him, and some remembrance of her own words would have remained with her. She was quite sure that she had answered no question. Some memory of mingled granting and denying, of repulses and assents all quickly huddled upon one another, of attempts to escape while she was so happy to remain, and then of a deluge of love terms which fell upon her ears, – "his own one, his wife, his darling, his Ayala, at last his own sweet Ayala," – this was what remained to her of that little interview. She had not spoken a word. She thought she was sure of that. Her breath had left her, – so that she could not speak. And yet it had been taken for granted, – though on former occasions he had pleaded with slow piteous words! How had it been that he had come to know the truth so suddenly? Then she became aware that Lady Albury was speaking to Mrs. Gosling in the billiard-room outside, detaining her other guest till the scene within should be over. At that moment she did speak a word which she remembered afterwards. "Go; – go; you must go now." Then there had been one other soft repulse, one other sweet assent, and the man had gone. There was just a moment for her, in which to tell herself that the Angel of Light had come for her, and had taken her to himself.
Mrs. Gosling, who was a pretty little woman, crept softly into the room, hiding her suspicion if she had any. Lady Albury put out her hand to Ayala behind the other woman's back, not raising it high, but just so that her young friend might touch it if she pleased. Ayala did touch it, sliding her little fingers into the offered grasp. "I thought it would be so," whispered Lady Albury. "I thought it would be so."
"What the deuce are you all up to," said Sir Harry, bursting into the room. "It's eight now, and that man has only just gone up to his room."
"He hasn't been in the house above five minutes yet," said Lady Albury, "and I think he has been very quick." Ayala thought so too.
During dinner and afterwards they were very full of hunting for the next day. It was wonderful to Ayala that there should be thought for such a trifle when there was such a thing as love in the world. While there was so much to fill her heart, how could there be thoughts of anything else? But Jonathan, – he was Jonathan to her now, her Jonathan, her Angel of Light, – was very keen upon the subject. There was but one week left. He thought that Croppy might manage three days as there was to be but one week. Croppy would have leisure and rest enough afterwards. "It's a little sharp," said Sir Harry.
"Oh, pray don't," said Ayala.
But Lady Albury and Jonathan together silenced Sir Harry, and Mrs. Gosling proved the absurdity of the objection by telling the story of a pony who had carried a lady three days running. "I should not have liked to be either the pony, or the owner, or the lady," said Sir Harry. But he was silenced. What did it matter though the heavens fell, so that Ayala was pleased? What is too much to be done for a girl who proves herself to be an angel by accepting the right man at the right time?
She had but one moment alone with her lover that night. "I always loved you," she whispered to him as she fled away. The Colonel did not quite understand the assertion, but he was contented with it as he sat smoking his cigar with Sir Harry and Mr. Gosling.
But, though she could have but one word that night with her lover, there were many words between her and Lady Albury before they went to bed. "And so, like wise people, you have settled it all between you at last," said Lady Albury.
"I don't know whether he is wise."
"We will take that for granted. At any rate he has been very true."
"And you, – you knew all about it."
"No; – I knew nothing. I did not think he would ever ask again. I only hoped."
"But why on earth did you give him so much trouble?"
"I can't tell you," said Ayala, shaking her head.
"Do you mean that there is still a secret?"
"No, not that. I would tell you anything that I could tell, because you have been so very, very good to me. But I cannot tell. I cannot explain even to myself. Oh, Lady Albury, why have you been so good to me?"
"Shall I say because I have loved you?"
"Yes; – if it be true."
"But it is not true."
"Oh, Lady Albury!"
"I do love you dearly. I shall always love you now. I do hope I shall love you now, because you will be his wife. But I have not been kind to you as you call it because I loved you."
"Because I loved him. Cannot you understand that? Because I was anxious that he should have all that he wanted. Was it not necessary that there should be some house in which he might meet you? Could there have been much of a pleasant time for wooing between you in your aunt's drawing-room in Kingsbury Crescent?"
"Oh, no," said Ayala.
"Could he have taken you out hunting unless you had been here? How could he and you have known each other at all unless I had been kind to you? Now you will understand."
"Yes," said Ayala, "I understand now. Did he ask you?"
"Well, – he consulted me. We talked you all over, and made up our minds, between us, that if we petted you down here that would be the best way to win you. Were we not right?"
"It was a very nice way. I do so like to be petted."
"Sir Harry was in the secret, and he did his petting by buying the frock. That was a success too, I think."
"Did he care about that, Lady Albury?"
"Jonathan," said Ayala, almost stumbling over the word, as she pronounced it aloud for the first time.
"I think he liked it. But whether he would have persevered without it you must ask yourself. If he tells you that he would never have said another word to you only for this frock, then I think you ought to thank Sir Harry, and give him a kiss."
"I am sure he will not tell me that," said Ayala, with mock indignation.
"And now, my dear, as I have told you all my secret, and have explained to you how we laid our heads together, and plotted against you, I think you ought to tell me your secret. Why was it that you refused him so pertinaciously on that Sunday when you were out walking, and yet you knew your mind about it so clearly as soon as he arrived to-day?"
"I can't explain it," said Ayala.
"You must know that you liked him."
"I always liked him."
"You must have more than liked on that Sunday."
"I adored him."
"Then I don't understand you."
"Lady Albury, I think I fell in love with him the first moment I saw him. The Marchesa took me to a party in London, and there he was."
"Did he say anything to you then?"
"No. He was very funny, – as he often is. Don't you know his way? I remember every word he said to me. He came up without any introduction and ordered me to dance with him."
"And you did?"
"Oh yes. Whatever he told me I should have done. Then he scolded me because I did not stand up quick enough. And he invented some story about a woman who was engaged to him and would not marry him because he had red hair and his name was Jonathan. I knew it was all a joke, and yet I hated the woman."
"That must have been love at first sight."
"I think it was. From that day to this I have always been thinking about him."
"And yet you refused him twice over?"
"At ever so long an interval?" Ayala bobbed her head at her companion. "And why?"
"Ah; – that I can't tell. I shall try to tell him some day, but I know that I never shall. It was because – . But, Lady Albury, I cannot tell it. Did you ever picture anything to yourself in a waking dream?"
"Build castles in the air?" suggested Lady Albury.
"That's just it."
"Very often. But they never come true."
"Never have come true, – exactly. I had a castle in the air, and in the castle lived a knight." She was still ashamed to say that the inhabitant of the castle was an Angel of Light. "I wanted to find out whether he was the knight who lived there. He was."
"And you were not quite sure till to-day?"
"I have been sure a long time. But when we walked out on that Sunday I was such an idiot that I did not know how to tell him. Oh, Lady Albury, I was such a fool! What should I have done if he hadn't come back?"
"Sent for him."
"Never; – never! I should have been miserable always! But now I am so happy."
"He is the real knight?"
"Oh, yes; indeed. He is the real, – real knight, that has always been living in my castle."
Ayala's promotion was now so firmly fixed that the buxom female came to assist her off with her clothes when Lady Albury had left her. From this time forth it was supposed that such assistance would be necessary. "I take it, Miss," said the buxom female, "there will be a many new dresses before the end of this time two years." From which Ayala was quite sure that everybody in the house knew all about it.
But it was now, now when she was quite alone, that the great sense of her happiness came to her. In the fulness of her dreams there had never been more than the conviction that such a being, and none other, could be worthy of her love. There had never been faith in the hope that such a one would come to her, – never even though she would tell herself that angels had come down from heaven and had sought in marriage the hands of the daughters of men. Her dreams had been to her a barrier against love rather than an encouragement. But now he that she had in truth dreamed of had come for her. Then she brought out the Marchesa's letter and read that description of her lover. Yes; he was all that; true, brave, tender, – a very hero. But then he was more than all that, – for he was in truth the very "Angel of Light."
The Monday was devoted to hunting. I am not at all sure that riding about the country with a pack of hounds is an amusement specially compatible with that assured love entertainment which was now within the reach of Ayala and her Angel. For the rudiments of love-making, for little endearing attentions, for a few sweet words to be whispered with shortened breath as one horse gallops beside another, perhaps for a lengthened half-hour together, amidst the mazes of a large wood when opportunities are no doubt given for private conversation, hunting may be very well. But for two persons who are engaged, with the mutual consent of all their friends, a comfortable sofa is perhaps preferable. Ayala had heard as yet but very little of her lover's intentions; – was acquainted only with that one single intention which he had declared in asking her to be his wife. There were a thousand things to be told, – the how, the where, and the when. She knew hitherto the why, and that was all. Nothing could be told her while she was galloping about a big wood on Croppy's back. "I am delighted to see you again in these parts, Miss," said Larry Twentyman, suddenly.
"Oh, Mr. Twentyman; how is the baby?"
"The baby is quite well, Miss. His mamma has been out ever so many times."
"I ought to have asked for her first. Does baby come out too?"
"Not quite. But when the hounds are near mamma comes for an hour or so. We have had a wonderful season, – quite wonderful. You have heard, perhaps, of our great run from Dillsborough Wood. We found him there, close to my place, you know, and run him down in the Brake country after an hour and forty minutes. There were only five or six of them. You'd have been one, Miss, to a moral, if you'd have been here on the pony. I say we never changed our fox."
Ayala was well disposed towards Larry Twentyman, and was quite aware that, according to the records and established usages of that hunt, he was a man with whom she might talk safely. But she did not care about the foxes so much as she had done before. There was nothing now for which she cared much, except Jonathan Stubbs. He was always riding near her throughout the day, so that he might be with her should there arise anything special to be done; but he was not always close to her, – as she would have had him. He had gained his purpose, and he was satisfied. She had entered in upon the fruition of positive bliss, but enjoyed it in perfection only when she heard the sound of his voice, or could look into his eyes as she spoke to him. She did not care much about the great run from Dillsborough, or even for the compliment with which Mr. Twentyman finished his narrative. They were riding about the big woods all day, not without killing a fox, but with none of the excitement of a real run. "After that Croppy will be quite fit to come again on Wednesday," suggested the Colonel on their way home. To which Sir Harry assented.
"What do you folks mean to do to-day?" asked Lady Albury at breakfast on the following morning. Ayala had her own little plan in her head, but did not dare to propose it publicly. "Will you choose to be driven, or will you choose to walk?" said Lady Albury, addressing herself to Ayala. Ayala, in her present position, was considered to be entitled to special consideration. Ayala thought she would prefer to walk. At last there came a moment in which she could make her request to the person chiefly concerned. "Walk with me to the wood with that absurd name," suggested Ayala.
"Gobblegoose Wood," suggested the Colonel. Then that was arranged according to Ayala's wishes.
A walk in a wood is perhaps almost as good as a comfortable seat in a drawing-room, and is, perhaps, less liable to intrusion. They started and walked the way which Ayala remembered so well when she had trudged along, pretending to listen to Sir Harry and Captain Glomax as they carried on their discussion about the hunted fox, but giving all her ears to the Colonel, and wondering whether he would say anything to her before the day was over. Then her mind had been in a perturbed state which she herself had failed to understand. She was sure that she would say "No" to him, should he speak, and yet she desired that it should be "Yes." What a fool she had been, she told herself as she walked along now, and how little she had deserved all the good that had come to her!
The conversation was chiefly with him as they went. He told her much now of the how, and the when, and the where. He hoped there might be no long delay. He would live, he said, for the next year or two at Aldershot, and would be able to get a house fit for her on condition that they should be married at once. He did not explain why the house could not be taken even though their marriage were delayed two or three months, – but as to this she asked no questions. Of course they must be married in London if Mrs. Dosett wished it; but if not it might be arranged that the wedding should take place at Stalham. Upon all this and many other things he had much to propose, and all that he said Ayala accepted as gospel. As the Angel of Light had appeared, – as the knight who was lord of the castle had come forth, – of course he must be obeyed in everything. He could hardly have made a suggestion to which she would not have acceded. When they had entered the wood Ayala in her own quiet way led him to the very spot in which on that former day he had asked her his question. "Do you remember this path?" she asked.