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"I remember that you and I were walking here together," he said.
"Ay, but this very turn? Do you remember this branch?"
"Well, no; not the branch."
"You put your hand on it when you said that 'never – never,' to me."
"Did I say 'never, – never'?"
"Yes, you did; – when I was so untrue to you."
"Were you untrue?" he asked.
"Jonathan, you remember nothing about it. It has all passed away from you just as though you were talking to Captain Glomax about the fox."
"Has it, dear?"
"I remember every word of it. I remember how you stood and how you looked, even to the hat you wore and the little switch you held in your hand, – when you asked for one little word, one glance, one slightest touch. There, now; – you shall have all my weight to bear." Then she leant upon him with both her hands, turned round her arm, glanced up into his face, and opened her lips as though speaking that little word. "Do you remember that I said I thought you had given it all up?"
"I remember that, certainly."
"And was not that untrue? Oh, Jonathan, that was such a story. Had I thought so I should have been miserable."
"Then why did you swear to me so often that you could not love me?"
"I never said so," replied Ayala; "never."
"Did you not?" he asked.
"I never said so. I never told you such a story as that. I did love you then, almost as well as I do now. Oh, I had loved you for so long a time!"
"Then why did you refuse me?"
"Ah; that is what I would explain to you now, – here on this very spot, – if I could. Does it not seem odd that a girl should have all that she wants offered to her, and yet not be able to take it?"
"Was it all that you wanted?"
"Indeed it was. When I was in church that morning I told myself that I never, never, could be happy unless you came to me again."
"But when I did come you would not have me."
"I knew how to love you," she said, "but I did not know how to tell you that I loved you. I can tell you now; cannot I?" and then she looked up at him and smiled. "Yes, I think I shall never be tired of telling you now. It is sweet to hear you say that you love me, but it is sweeter still to be always telling you. And yet I could not tell you then. Suppose you had taken me at my word?"
"I told you that I should never give you up."
"It was only that that kept me from being altogether wretched. I think that I was ashamed to tell you the truth when I had once refused to do as you would have me. I had given you so much trouble all for nothing. I think that if you had asked me on that first day at the ball in London I should have said yes, if I had told the truth."
"That would have been very sudden. I had never seen you before that."
"Nevertheless it was so. I don't mind owning it to you now, though I never, never, would own it to any one else. When you came to us at the theatre I was sure that no one else could ever have been so good.I certainly did love you then."
"Hardly that, Ayala."
"I did," she said. "Now I have told you everything, and if you choose to think I have been bad, – why you must think so, and I must put up with it."
"Bad, my darling?"
"I suppose it was bad to fall in love with a man like that; and very bad to give him the trouble of coming so often. But now I have made a clean breast of it, and if you want to scold me you must scold me now. You may do it now, but you must never scold me afterwards, – because of that." It may be left to the reader to imagine the nature of the scolding which she received.
Then on their way home she thanked him for all the good that he had done to all those belonging to her. "I have heard it all from Lucy; – how generous you have been to Isadore."
"That has all come to nothing," he said.
"How come to nothing? I know that you sent him the money."
"I did offer to lend him something, and, indeed, I sent him a cheque; but two days afterwards he returned it. That tremendous uncle of yours – "
"Yes, your Uncle Tom; the man of millions! He came forward and cut me out altogether. I don't know what went on down there in Sussex, but when he heard that they intended to be married shortly he put his hand into his pocket, as a magnificent uncle, overflowing with millions, ought to do."
"I did not hear that."
"Hamel sent my money back at once."
"And poor Tom! You were so good to poor Tom."
"I like Tom."
"But he did behave badly."
"Well; yes. One gentleman shouldn't strike another, even though he be ever so much in love. It's an uncomfortable proceeding, and never has good results. But then, poor fellow, he has been so much in earnest."
"Why couldn't he take a No when he got it?"
"Why didn't I take a No when I got it?"
"That was very different. He ought to have taken it. If you had taken it you would have been very wrong, and have broken a poor girl's heart. I am sure you knew that all through."
"And then you were too good-natured. That was it. I don't think you really love me; – not as I love you. Oh, Jonathan, if you were to change your mind now! Suppose you were to tell me that it was a mistake! Suppose I were to awake and find myself in bed at Kingsbury Crescent?"
"I hope there may be no such waking as that!"
"I should go mad, – stark mad. Shake me till I find out whether it is real waking, downright, earnest. But, Jonathan, why did you call me Miss Dormer when you went away? That was the worst of all. I remember when you called me Ayala first. It went through and through me like an electric shock. But you never saw it; – did you?"
On that afternoon when she returned home she wrote to her sister Lucy, giving a sister's account to her sister of all her happiness. "I am sure Isadore is second best, but Jonathan is best. I don't want you to say so; but if you contradict me I shall stick to it. You remember my telling you that the old woman in the railway said that I was perverse. She was a clever old woman, and knew all about it, for I was perverse. However, it has come all right now, and Jonathan is best of all. Oh, my man, – my man! Is it not sweet to have a man of one's own to love?" If this letter had been written on the day before, – as would have been the case had not Ayala been taken out hunting, – it would have reached Merle Park on the Wednesday, the news would have been made known to Aunt Emmeline, and so conveyed to poor Tom, and that disagreeable journey from Merle Park to Stalham would have been saved. But there was no time for writing on the Monday. The letter was sent away in the Stalham post-bag on the Tuesday evening, and did not reach Merle Park till the Thursday, after Lady Tringle had left the house. Had it been known on that morning that Ayala was engaged to Colonel Stubbs that would have sufficed to send Tom away upon his travels without any more direct messenger from Stalham.
On the Wednesday there was more hunting, and on this day Ayala, having liberated her mind to her lover in Gobblegoose Wood, was able to devote herself more satisfactorily to the amusement in hand. Her engagement was now an old affair. It had already become matter for joking to Sir Harry, and had been discussed even with Mrs. Gosling. It was, of course, "a joy for ever," – but still she was beginning to descend from the clouds and to walk the earth, – no more than a simple queen. When, therefore, the hounds went away and Larry told her that he knew the best way out of the wood, she collected her energies and rode "like a little brick," as Sir Harry said when they got back to Stalham. On that afternoon she received the note from her aunt and replied to it by telegram.
On the Thursday she stayed at home and wrote various letters. The first was to the Marchesa, and then one to Nina, – in both of which much had to be said about "Jonathan." To Nina also she could repeat her idea of the delight of having a man to love. Then there was a letter to Aunt Margaret, – which certainly was due, and another to Aunt Emmeline, – which was not however received until after Lady Tringle's visit to Stalham. There was much conversation between her and Lady Albury as to the possible purpose of the visit which was to be made on the morrow. Lady Albury was of opinion that Lady Tringle had heard of the engagement, and was coming with the intention of setting it on one side on Tom's behalf. "But she can't do that, you know," said Ayala, with some manifest alarm. "She is nothing to me now, Lady Albury. She got rid of me, you know. I was changed away for Lucy."
"If there had been no changing away, she could do nothing," said Lady Albury.
About a quarter of an hour before the time for lunch on the following day Lady Tringle was shown into the small sitting-room which has been mentioned in a previous chapter, and Ayala, radiant with happiness and beauty, appeared before her. There was a look about her of being at home at Stalham, as though she were almost a daughter of the house, that struck her aunt with surprise. There was nothing left of that submissiveness which, though Ayala herself had not been submissive, belonged, as of right, to girls so dependent as she and her sister Lucy. "I am so delighted to see you at Stalham," said Ayala, as she embraced her aunt.
"I am come to you," said Lady Tringle, "on a matter of very particular business." Then she paused, and assumed a look of peculiar solemnity.
"Have you got my letter?" demanded Ayala.
"I got your telegram, and I thought it very civil of Lady Albury. But I cannot stay. Your poor cousin Tom is in such a condition that I cannot leave him longer than I can help."
"But you have not got my letter?"
"I have had no letter from you, Ayala."
"I have sent you such news, – oh, such news, Aunt Emmeline!"
"What news, my dear?" Lady Tringle as she asked the question seemed to become more solemn than ever.
"Oh, Aunt Emmeline – ; I am – "
"You are what, Ayala?"
"I am engaged to be married to Colonel Jonathan Stubbs."
"Yes, Aunt Emmeline; – engaged. I wrote to you on Tuesday to tell you all about it. I hope you and Uncle Tom will approve. There cannot possibly be any reason against it, – except only that I have nothing to give him in return; that is in the way of money. Colonel Stubbs, Aunt Emmeline, is not what Uncle Tom will call a rich man, but everybody here says that he has got quite enough to be comfortable. If he had nothing in the world it could not make any difference to me. I don't understand how anybody is to love any one or not to love him just because he is rich or poor."
"But you are absolutely engaged!" exclaimed Lady Tringle.
"Oh dear yes. Perhaps you would like to ask Lady Albury about it. He did want it before, you know."
"But now you are engaged to him?" In answer to this Ayala thought it sufficient simply to nod her head. "It is all over then?"
"All over!" exclaimed Ayala. "It is just going to begin."
"All over for poor Tom," said Lady Tringle.
"Oh yes. It was always over for him, Aunt Emmeline. I told him ever so many times that it never could be so. Don't you know, Aunt Emmeline, that I did?"
"But you said that to this man just the same."
"Aunt Emmeline," said Ayala, putting on all the serious dignity which she knew how to assume, "I am engaged to Colonel Stubbs, and nothing on earth that anybody can say can change it. If you want to hear all about it, Lady Albury will tell you. She knows that you are my aunt, and therefore she will be quite willing to talk to you. Only nothing that anybody can say can change it."
"Poor Tom!" ejaculated the rejected lover's mother.
"I am very sorry if my cousin is displeased."
"He is ill, – terribly ill. He will have to go away and travel all about the world, and I don't know that ever he will come back again. I am sure this Stubbs will never love you as he has done."
"Oh, aunt, what is the use of that?"
"And then Tom will have twice as much. But, however – " Ayala stood silent, not seeing that any good could be done by addition to her former assurances. "I will go and tell him, my dear, that's all. Will you not send him some message, Ayala?"
"Oh, yes; any message that I can that shall go along with my sincere attachment to Colonel Stubbs. You must tell him that I am engaged to Colonel Stubbs. You will tell him, Aunt Emmeline?"
"Oh, yes; if it must be so."
"It must," said Ayala. "Then you may give him my love, and tell him that I am very unhappy that I should have been a trouble to him, and that I hope he will soon be well, and come back from his travels." By this time Aunt Emmeline was dissolved in tears. "I could not help it, Aunt Emmeline, could I?" Her aunt had once terribly outraged her feelings by telling her that she had encouraged Tom. Ayala remembered at this moment the cruel words and the wound which they had inflicted on her; but, nevertheless, she behaved tenderly, and endeavoured to be respectful and submissive. "I could not help it, – could I, Aunt Emmeline?"
"I suppose not, my dear."
After that Lady Tringle declared that she would return to London at once. No; – she would rather not go in to lunch. She would rather go back at once to the station if they would take her. She had been weeping, and did not wish to show her tears. Therefore, at Ayala's request, the carriage came round again, – to the great disgust, no doubt, of the coachman, – and Lady Tringle was taken back to the station without having seen any of the Albury family.