Dear Mr. Twentyman, I shall always think of you with esteem and regard, because I know how good you are; and I hope you will come to like somebody a great deal better than me who will always love you with her whole heart.
Yours very truly, Mary Masters.
P.S. I shall show this letter to papa.
Mr. Masters read it as she stood by him,—and then read it again very slowly rubbing one hand over the other as he did so. He was thinking what he should do;—or rather what he should say. The idea of stopping the letter never occurred to him.
If she chose to refuse the man of course she must do so; and perhaps, if she did refuse him, there was no way better than this. "Must it be so, Mary?" he said at last.
"Because I do not love him as I should have to love any man that I wanted to marry. I have tried it, because you wished it, but I cannot do it"
"What will mamma say?"
"I am thinking more, papa, of you," she said putting her arm over his shoulder. "You have always been so good to me, and so kind!" Here his heart misgave him, for he felt that during the last week he had not been kind to her. "But you would not wish me to give myself to a man and then not to care for him."
"No, my dear."
"I couldn't do it. I should fall down dead first. I have thought so much about it,—for your sake; and have tried it with myself. I couldn't do it"
"Is there anybody else, Mary?" As he asked the question he held her hand beneath his own on the desk, but he did not dare to look into her face. He had been told by his wife that there was somebody else; that the girl's mind was running upon Mr. Surtees, because Mr. Surtees was a gentleman. He was thinking of Mr. Surtees, and certainly not of Reginald Morton.
To her the moment was very solemn and when the question was asked she felt that she could not tell her father a falsehood. She had gradually grown bold enough to assure herself that her heart was occupied with that man who had travelled with her to Cheltenham; and she felt that that feeling alone must keep her apart from any other love. And yet, as she had no hope, as she had assured herself that her love was a burden to be borne and could never become a source of enjoyment, why should her secret be wrested from her? What good would such a violation do? But she could not tell the falsehood, and therefore she held her tongue.
Gradually he looked up into her face, still keeping her hand pressed on the desk under his. It was his left hand that so guarded her, while she stood by his right shoulder. Then he gently wound his right arm round her waist and pressed her to him. "Mary," he said, "if it is so, had you not better tell me?" But she was sure that she had better not mention that name even to him. It was impossible that she should mention it. She would have outraged to herself her own maiden modesty by doing so. "Is it,"—he asked very softly,—"is it Surtees?"
"Oh no!" she said quickly, almost escaping from the grasp of his arm in her start.
Then he was absolutely at a loss. Beyond Mr. Surtees or Larry Twentyman he did not know what possible lover Dillsborough could have afforded. And yet the very rapidity of her answer when the curate's name had been mentioned had convinced him that there was some other person,—had increased the strength of that conviction which her silence had produced. "Have you nothing that you can tell me, Mary?"
"No, papa." Then he gave her back the letter and she left the room without another word. Of course his sanction to the letter had now been given, and it was addressed to Chowton Farm and posted before half an hour was over. She saw him again in the afternoon of the same day and asked him to tell her stepmother what she had done. "Mamma ought to know," she said.
"But you haven't sent it"
"Yes, papa;—it is in the post"
Then it occurred to him that his wife would tell him that he should have prevented the sending of the letter,—that he should have destroyed it and altogether taken the matter with a high hand. "You can't tell her yourself?" he asked.
"I would rather you did. Mamma has been so hard to me since I came home."
He did tell his wife and she overwhelmed him by the violence of her reproaches. He could never have been in earnest, or he would not have allowed such a letter as that to pass through his hands. He must be afraid of his own child. He did not know his own duty. He had been deceiving her,—his wife,—from first to last. Then she threw herself into a torrent of tears declaring that she had been betrayed. There had been a conspiracy between them, and now everything might go to the dogs, and she would not lift up her hands again to save them. But before the evening came round she was again on the alert, and again resolved that she would not even yet give way. What was there in a letter more than in a spoken word? She would tell Larry to disregard the letter. But first she made a futile attempt to clutch the letter from the guardianship of the Post Office, and she went to the Postmaster assuring him that there had been a mistake in the family, that a wrong letter had been put into a wrong envelope, and begging that the letter addressed to Mr. Twentyman might be given back to her. The Postmaster, half vacillating in his desire to oblige a neighbour, produced the letter and Mrs. Masters put out her hand to grasp it; but the servant of the public,—who had been thoroughly grounded in his duties by one of those trusty guardians of our correspondence who inspect and survey our provincial post offices,—remembered himself at the last moment and expressing the violence of his regret, replaced the letter in the box. Mrs. Masters, in her anger and grief, condescended to say very hard things to her neighbour; but the man remembered his duty and was firm.
On that evening Larry Twentyman did not attend the Dillsborough Club, having in the course of the week notified to the attorney that he should be a defaulter. Mr. Masters himself went over earlier than usual, his own house having become very uncomfortable to him. Mrs. Masters for an hour sat expecting that Larry would come, and when the evening passed away without his appearance, she was convinced that the unusual absence was a part of the conspiracy against her.
Larry did not get his letter till the Monday morning. On the last Thursday and Saturday he had consoled himself for his doubts with the U.R.U., and was minded to do so on the Monday also. He had not gone to the club on Saturday and had moped about Chowton all the Sunday in a feverish state because of his doubts. It seemed to him that the two months would never be over. On the Monday he was out early on the farm and then came down in his boots and breeches, and had his red coat ready at the fire while he sat at breakfast. The meet was fifteen miles off and he had sent on his hunter, intending to travel thither in his dog cart. Just as he was cutting himself a slice of beef the postman came, and of course he read his letter. He read it with the carving knife in his hand, and then he stood gazing at his mother. "What is it, Larry?" she asked; "is anything wrong?"
"Wrong,—well; I don't know," he said. "I don't know what you call wrong. I shan't hunt; that's all." Then he threw aside the knife and pushed away his plate and marched out of the room with the open letter in his hand.
Mrs. Twentyman knew very well of his love,—as indeed did nearly all Dillsborough; but she had heard nothing of the two months and did not connect the letter with Mary Masters. Surely he must have lost a large sum of money. That was her idea till she saw him again late in the afternoon.
He never went near the hounds that day or near his business. He was not then man enough for either. But he walked about the fields, keeping out of sight of everybody. It was all over now. It must be all over when she wrote to him a letter like that. Why had she tempted him to thoughts of happiness and success by that promise of two months' grace? He supposed that he was not good enough;—or that she thought he was not good enough. Then he remembered his acres, and his material comforts, and tried to console himself by reflecting that Mary Masters might very well do worse in the world. But there was no consolation in it. He had tried his best because he had really loved the girl. He had failed, and all the world,— all his world, would know that he had failed. There was not a man in the club,—hardly a man in the hunt,—who was not aware that he had offered to Mary Masters. During the last two months he had not been so reticent as was prudent, and had almost boasted to Fred Botsey of success. And then how was he to live at Chowton Farm without Mary Masters as his wife? As he returned home he almost made up his mind that he would not continue to live at Chowton Farm.
He came back through Dillsborough Wood; and there, prowling about, he met Goarly. "Well, Mr. Twentyman," said the man, "I am making it all straight now with his Lordship."
"I don't care what you're doing," said Larry in his misery. "You are an infernal blackguard and that's the best of you."
Chowton Farm for Sale.
John Morton had returned to town soon after his walk into Dillsborough and had there learned from different sources that both Arabella Trefoil and Lord Rufford had gone or were going to Mistletoe. He had seen Lord Augustus who, though he could tell him nothing else about his daughter, had not been slow to inform him that she was going to the house of her noble uncle. When Morton had spoken to him very seriously about the engagement he declared that he knew nothing about it,—except that he had given his consent if the settlements were all right. Lady Augustus managed all that. Morton had then said that under those circumstances he feared he must regard the honour which he had hoped to enjoy as being beyond his reach. Lord Augustus had shrugged his shoulders and had gone back to his whist, this interview having taken place in the strangers' room of his club. That Lord Rufford was also going to Mistletoe he heard from young Glossop at the Foreign Office. It was quite possible that Glossop had been instructed to make this known to Morton by his sister Lady Penwether. Then Morton declared that the thing was over and that he would trouble himself no more about it. But this resolution did not make him at all contented, and in his misery he went again down to his solitude at Bragton.
And now when he might fairly consider himself to be free, and when he should surely have congratulated himself on a most lucky escape from the great danger into which he had fallen, his love and admiration for the girl returned to him in a most wonderful manner. He thought of her beauty and her grace, and the manner in which she would sit at the head of his table when the time should come for him to be promoted to some great capital. To him she had fascinations which the reader, who perhaps knows her better than he ever did, will not share. He could forgive the coldness of her conduct to himself—he himself not being by nature demonstrative or impassioned,—if only she were not more kind to any rival. It was the fact that she should be visiting at the same house with Lord Rufford after what he had seen at Rufford Hall which had angered him. But now in his solitude he thought that he might have been wrong at Rufford Hall. If it were the case that the girl feared that her marriage might be prevented by the operations of lawyers and family friends, of course she would be right not to throw herself into his arms,—even metaphorically. He was a cold, just man who, when he had loved, could not easily get rid of his love, and now he would ask himself whether he was not hard upon the girl. It was natural that she should be at Mistletoe; but then why should Lord Rufford be there with her?
His prospects at Patagonia did not console him much. No doubt it was a handsome mission for a man of his age and there were sundry Patagonian questions of importance at the present moment which would give him a certain weight. Patagonia was repudiating a loan, and it was hoped that he might induce a better feeling in the Patagonian Parliament. There was the Patagonian railway for joining the Straits to the Cape the details of which he was now studying with great diligence. And then there was the vital question of boundary between Patagonia and the Argentine Republic by settling which, should he be happy enough to succeed in doing so, he would prevent the horrors of warfare. He endeavoured to fix his mind with satisfaction on these great objects as he pored over the reports and papers which had been heaped upon him since. he had accepted the mission. But there was present to him always a feeling that the men at the Foreign Office had been glad to get any respectable diplomate to go to Patagonia, and that his brethren in the profession had marvelled at his acceptance of such a mission. One never likes to be thanked over much for doing anything. It creates a feeling that one has given more than was expedient. He knew that he must now go to Patagonia, but he repented the alacrity with which he had acceded to the proposition. Whether he did marry Arabella Trefoil or whether he did not, there was no adequate reason for such a banishment. And yet he could not now escape it!
It was on a Monday morning that Larry Twentyman had found himself unable to go hunting. On the Tuesday he gave his workmen about the farm such a routing as they had not received for many a month. There had not been a dung heap or a cowshed which he had not visited, nor a fence about the place with which he had not found fault. He was at it all day, trying thus to console himself, but in vain; and when his mother in the evening said some word of her misery in regard to the turkeys he had told her that as far as he was concerned Goarly might poison every fox in the county. Then the poor woman knew that matters were going badly with her son. On the Wednesday, when the hounds met within two miles of Chowton, he again stayed at home; but in the afternoon he rode into Dillsborough and contrived to see the attorney without being seen by any of the ladies of the family. The interview did not seem to do him any good. On the Thursday morning he walked across to Bragton and with a firm voice asked to see the Squire. Morton who was deep in the boundary question put aside his papers and welcomed his neighbour.
Now it must be explained that when, in former years, his son's debts had accumulated on old Mr. Reginald Morton, so that he had been obliged to part with some portion of his unentailed property, he had sold that which lay in the parish of St. John's, Dillsborough. The lands in Bragton and Mallingham he could not sell; but Chowton Farm which was in St. John's had been bought by Larry Twentyman's grandfather. For a time there had been some bitterness of feeling; but the Twentymans had been well-to-do respectable people, most anxious to be good neighbours, and had gradually made themselves liked by the owner of Bragton. The present Squire had of course known nothing of Chowton as a part of the Morton property, and had no more desire for it than for any of Lord Rufford's acres which were contiguous to his own. He shook hands cordially with his neighbour, as though this visit were the most natural thing in the world, and asked some questions about Goarly and the hunt.
"I believe that'll all come square, Mr. Morton. I'm not interesting myself much about it now." Larry was not dressed like himself. He had on a dark brown coat, and dark pantaloons and a chimney-pot hat. He was conspicuous generally for light-coloured close-fitting garments and for a billycock hat. He was very unlike his usual self on the present occasion.
"I thought you were just the man who did interest himself about those things."
"Well; yes; once it was so, Mr. Morton. What I've got to say now, Mr. Morton, is this. Chowton Farm is in the market! But I wouldn't say a word to any one about it till you had had the offer."
"You going to sell Chowton!"
"Yes, Mr. Morton, I am."
"From all I have heard of you I wouldn't have believed it if anybody else had told me."
"It's a fact, Mr. Morton. There are three hundred and twenty acres. I put the rental at 30s. an acre. You know what you get, Mr. Morton, for the land that lies next to it. And I think twenty-eight years' purchase isn't more than it's worth. Those are my ideas as to price, Mr. Morton. There isn't a halfpenny owing on it—not in the way of mortgage."
"I dare say it's worth that"
"Up at auction I might get a turn more, Mr. Morton;—but those are my ideas at present"
John Morton who was a man of business went to work at once with his pencil and in two minutes had made out a total. "I don't know that I could put my hand on 14,000 pounds even if I were minded to make the purchase."
"That needn't stand in the way, sir. Any part you please could lie on mortgage at 4.5 per cent" Larry in the midst of his distress had certain clear ideas about business.
"This is a very serious proposition, Mr. Twentyman."
"Yes, indeed, sir."
"Have you any other views in life?"
"I can't say as I have any fixed. I shan't be idle, Mr. Morton. I never was idle. I was thinking perhaps of New Zealand."
"A very fine colony for a young man, no doubt. But, seeing how well you are established here—."
"I can't stay here, Mr. Morton. I've made up my mind about that. There are things which a man can't bear,—not and live quiet. As for hunting, I don't care about it any more than—nothing."
"I am sorry that anything should have made you so unhappy."
"Well;—I am unhappy. That's about the truth of it. And I always shall be unhappy here. There's nothing else for it but going away."
"If it's anything sudden, Mr. Twentyman, allow me to say that you ought not to sell your property without grave consideration."
"I have considered it,—very grave, Mr. Morton."
"Ah,—but I mean long consideration. Take a year to think of it. You can't buy such a place back in a year. I don't know you well enough to be justified in inquiring into the circumstances of your trouble;—but unless it be something which makes it altogether inexpedient, or almost impossible that you should remain in the neighbourhood, you should not sell Chowton."
"I'll tell you, Mr. Morton," said Larry almost weeping. Poor Larry whether in his triumph or his sorrow had no gift of reticence and now told his neighbour the whole story of his love. He was certain it had become quite hopeless. He was sure that she would never have written him a letter if there had been any smallest chance left. According to his ideas a girl might say "no" half-a-dozen times and yet not mean much; but when she had committed herself to a letter she could not go back from it.
"Is there anybody else?" asked Morton.
"Not as I know. I never saw anything like—like lightness with her, with any man. They said something about the curate but I don't believe a word of it."
"And the family approve of it?"
"Every one of them,—father and stepmother and sisters and all. My own mother too! There ain't a ha'porth against it. I don't want any one to give me sixpence in money. And she should live just like a lady. I can keep a servant for her to cook and do every mortal thing. But it ain't nothing of all that, Mr. Morton."
"What is it then?"
The poor man paused before he made his answer; but when he did, he made it plain enough. "I ain't good enough for her! Nor more I ain't, Mr. Morton. She was brought up in this house, Mr. Morton, by your own grand-aunt."
"So I have heard, Mr. Twentyman."
"And there's more of Bragton than there is of Dillsborough about her; that's just where it is. I know what I am and I know what she is, and I ain't good enough for her. It should be somebody that can talk books to her. I can tell her how to plant a field of wheat or how to run a foal;—but I can't sit and read poetry, nor yet be read to. There's plenty of 'em would sell themselves because the land's all there, and the house, and the things in it. What makes me mad is that I should love her all the better because she won't. My belief is, Mr. Morton, they're as poor as job. That makes no difference to me because I don't want it; but it makes no difference to her neither! She's right, Mr. Morton. I'm not good enough, and so I'll just cut it as far as Dillsborough is concerned. You'll think of what I said of taking the land?"
Mr. Morton said much more to him, walking with him to the gate of Chowton Farm. He assured him that the young lady might yet be won. He had only, Morton said, to plead his case to her as well as he had pleaded up at Bragton and he thought that she would be won. "I couldn't speak out free to her,—not if it was to save the whole place," said the unfortunate lover. But Morton still continued his advice. As to leaving Chowton because a young lady refused him, that would be unmanly—"There isn't a bit of a man left about me," said Larry weeping. Morton nevertheless went on. Time would cure these wounds; but no time would give him back Chowton should he once part with it. If he must leave the place for a time let him put a caretaker on the farm, even though by doing so the loss might be great. He should do anything rather than surrender his house. As to buying the land himself, Morton would not talk about it in the present circumstances. Then they parted at Chowton gate with many expressions of friendship on each side.
John Morton, as he returned home, could not help thinking that the young farmer's condition was after all better than his own. There was an honesty about both the persons concerned of which at any rate they might be proud. There was real love,—and though that love was not at present happy it was of a nature to inspire perfect respect. But in his own case he was sure of nothing.
When Arabella Trefoil started from London for Mistletoe, with no companion but her own maid, she had given more serious consideration to her visit than she had probably ever paid to any matter up to that time. She had often been much in earnest but never so much in earnest as now. Those other men had perhaps been worthy, worthy as far as her ideas went of worth, but none of them so worthy as this man. Everything was there if she could only get it;—money, rank, fashion, and an appetite for pleasure. And he was handsome too, and good-humoured, though these qualities told less with her than the others. And now she was to meet him in the house of her great relations,—in a position in which her rank and her fashion would seem to be equal to his own. And she would meet him with the remembrance fresh in his mind as in her own of those passages of love at Rufford. It would be impossible that he should even seem to forget them. The most that she could expect would be four or five days of his company, and she knew that she must be upon her mettle. She must do more now than she had ever attempted before. She must scruple at nothing that might bind him. She would be in the house of her uncle and that uncle a duke, and she thought that those facts might help to quell him. And she would be there without her mother, who was so often a heavy incubus on her shoulders. She thought of it all, and made her plans carefully and even painfully. She would be at any rate two days in the house before his arrival. During that time she would curry favour with her uncle by all her arts, and would if possible reconcile herself to her aunt. She thought once of taking her aunt into her full confidence and balanced the matter much in her mind. The Duchess, she knew, was afraid of her,—or rather afraid of the relationship, and would of course be pleased to have all fears set at rest by such an alliance. But her aunt was a woman who had never suffered hardships, whose own marriage had been easily arranged, and whose two daughters had been pleasantly married before they were twenty years old. She had had no experience of feminine difficulties, and would have no mercy for such labours as those to which her less fortunate niece was driven. It would have been a great thing to have the cordial co-operation of her aunt; but she could not venture to ask for it.
She had stretched her means and her credit to the utmost in regard to her wardrobe, and was aware that she had never been so well equipped since those early days of her career in which her father and mother had thought that her beauty, assisted by a generous expenditure, would serve to dispose of her without delay. A generous expenditure may be incurred once even by poor people, but cannot possibly be maintained over a dozen years. Now she had taken the matter into her own hands and had done that which would be ruinous if not successful. She was venturing her all upon the die,—with the prospect of drowning herself on the way out to Patagonia should the chances of the game go against her. She forgot nothing. She could hardly hope for more than one day's hunting and yet that had been provided for as though she were going to ride with the hounds through all the remainder of the season.
When she reached Mistletoe there were people going and coming every day, so that an arrival was no event. She was kissed by her uncle and welcomed with characteristic coldness by her aunt, then allowed to settle in among the other guests as though she had been there all the winter. Everybody knew that she was a Trefoil and her presence therefore raised no question. The Duchess of Omnium was among the guests. The Duchess knew all about her and vouchsafed to her the smallest possible recognition. Lady Chiltern had met her before, and as Lady Chiltern was always generous, she was gracious to Arabella. She was sorry to see Lady Drummond, because she connected Lady Drummond with the Foreign Office and feared that the conversation might be led to Patagonia and its new minister. She contrived to squeeze her uncle's hand and to utter a word of warm thanks,—which his grace did not perfectly understand. The girl was his niece and the Duke had an idea that he should be kind to the family of which he was the head. His brother's wife had become objectionable to him, but as to the girl, if she wanted a home for a week or two, he thought it to be his duty to give it to her.
Mistletoe is an enormous house with a frontage nearly a quarter of a mile long, combining as it does all the offices, coach houses, and stables. There is nothing in England more ugly or perhaps more comfortable. It stands in a huge park which, as it is quite flat, never shows its size and is altogether unattractive. The Duke himself was a hospitable, easy man who was very fond of his dinner and performed his duties well; but could never be touched by any sentiment. He always spent six months in the country, in which he acted as landlord to a great crowd of shooting, hunting, and flirting visitors, and six in London, in which he gave dinners and dined out and regularly took his place in the House of Lords without ever opening his mouth. He was a grey-haired comely man of sixty, with a large body and a wonderful appetite. By many who understood the subject he was supposed to be the best amateur judge of wine in England. His son Lord Mistletoe was member for the county and as the Duke had no younger sons he was supposed to be happy at all points. Lord Mistletoe, who had a large family of his own, lived twenty miles off,—so that the father and son could meet pleasantly without fear of quarrelling.
During the first evening Arabella did contrive to make herself very agreeable. She was much quieter than had been her wont when at Mistletoe before, and though there were present two or three very well circumstanced young men she took but little notice of them. She went out to dinner with Sir Jeffrey Bunker, and made herself agreeable to that old gentleman in a remarkable manner. After dinner, something having been said of the respectable old game called cat's cradle, she played it to perfection with Sir Jeffrey, till her aunt thought that she must have been unaware that Sir Jeffrey had a wife and family. She was all smiles and all pleasantness, and seemed to want no other happiness than what the present moment gave her. Nor did she once mention Lord Rufford's name.
On the next morning after breakfast her aunt sent for her to come up-stairs. Such a thing had never happened to her before. She could not recollect that, on any of those annual visits which she had made to Mistletoe for more years than she now liked to think of, she had ever had five minutes' conversation alone with her aunt. It had always seemed that she was to be allowed to come and go by reason of her relationship, but that she was to receive no special mark of confidence or affection. The message was whispered into her ear by her aunt's own woman as she was listening with great attention to Lady Drummond's troubles in regard to her nursery arrangements. She nodded her head, heard a few more words from Lady Drummond, and then, with a pretty apology and a statement made so that all should hear her, that her aunt wanted her, followed the maid up-stairs. "My dear," said her aunt, when the door was closed, "I want to ask you whether you would like me to ask Mr. Morton to come here while you are with us?" A thunderbolt at her feet could hardly have surprised or annoyed her more. If there was one thing that she wanted less than another it was the presence of the Paragon at Mistletoe. It would utterly subvert everything and rob her of every chance. With a great effort she restrained all emotion and simply shook her head. She did it very well, and betrayed nothing. "I ask," said the Duchess, "because I have been very glad to hear that you are engaged to marry him. Lord Drummond tells me that he is a most respectable young man."
"Mr. Morton will be so much obliged to Lord Drummond."
"And I thought that if it were so, you would be glad that he should meet you here. I could manage it very well, as the Drummonds are here, and Lord Drummond would be glad to meet him."
They had not been above a minute or two together, and Arabella had been called upon to expend her energy in suppressing any expression of her horror; but still, by the time that she was called on to speak, she had fabricated her story. "Thanks, aunt; it is so good of you; and if everything was going straight, there would be nothing of course that I should like so much."
"You are engaged to him?"
"Well; I was going to tell you. I dare say it is not his fault; but papa and mamma and the lawyers think that he is not behaving well about money;—settlements and all that. I suppose it will all come right; but in the meantime perhaps I had better not meet him."
"But you were engaged to him?"
This had to be answered without pause. "Yes," said Arabella; "I was engaged to him."
"And he is going out almost immediately?"
"He is going, I know."
"I suppose you will go with him?"
This was very hard. She could not say that she certainly was not going with him. And yet she had to remember that her coming campaign with Lord Rufford must be carried on in part beneath her aunt's eyes. When she had come to Mistletoe she had fondly hoped that none of the family there would know anything about Mr. Morton. And now she was called upon to answer these horrid questions without a moment's notice! "I don't think I shall go with him, aunt; though I am unable to say anything certain just at present. If he behaves badly of course the engagement must be off."
"I hope not. You should think of it very seriously. As for money, you know, you have none of your own, and I am told that he has a very nice property in Rufford. There is a neighbour of his coming here to-morrow, and perhaps he knows him."
"Who is the neighbour, aunt?" asked Arabella, innocently.
"Lord Rufford. He is coming to shoot. I will ask him about the property."
"Pray don't mention my name, aunt. It would be so unpleasant if nothing were to come of it. I know Lord Rufford very well."
"Know Lord Rufford very well!"
"As one does know men that one meets about"
"I thought it might settle everything if we had Mr. Morton here."
"I couldn't meet him, aunt; I couldn't indeed. Mamma doesn't think that he is behaving well." To the Duchess condemnation from Lady Augustus almost amounted to praise. She felt sure that Mr. Morton was a worthy man who would not probably behave badly, and though she could not unravel the mystery, and certainly had no suspicion in regard to Lord Rufford, she was sure that there was something wrong. But there was nothing more to be said at present. After what Arabella had told her Mr. Morton could not be asked there to meet her niece. But all the slight feeling of kindness to the girl which had been created by the tidings of so respectable an engagement were at once obliterated from the Duchess's bosom. Arabella, with many expressions of thanks and a good-humoured countenance, left the room, cursing the untowardness of her fate which would let nothing run smooth.
Lord Rufford was to come. That at any rate was now almost certain. Up to the present she had doubted, knowing the way in which such men will change their engagements at the least caprice. But the Duchess expected him on the morrow. She had prepared the way for meeting him as an old friend without causing surprise, and had gained that step. But should she succeed, as she hoped, in exacting continued homage from the man, homage for the four or five days of his sojourn at Mistletoe,—this must be carried on with the knowledge on the part of many in the house that she was engaged to that horrid Patagonian Minister! Was ever a girl called upon to risk her entire fate under so many disadvantages?
When she went up to dress for dinner on the day of his expected arrival Lord Rufford had not come. Since the interview in her aunt's room she had not heard his name mentioned. When she came into the drawing-room, a little late, he was not there. "We won't wait, Duchess," said the Duke to his wife at three minutes past eight. The Duke's punctuality at dinner-time was well known, and everybody else was then assembled. Within two minutes after the Duke's word dinner was announced, and a party numbering about thirty walked away into the dinner-room. Arabella, when they were all settled, found that there was a vacant seat next herself. If the man were to come, fortune would have favoured her in that.
The fish and soup had already disappeared and the Duke was wakening himself to eloquence on the first entree when Lord Rufford entered the room. "There never were trains so late as yours, Duchess," he said, "nor any part of the world in which hired horses travel so slowly. I beg the Duke's pardon, but I suffer the less because I know his Grace never waits for anybody."
"Certainly not," said the Duke, "having some regard for my friends' dinners."
"And I find myself next to you," said Lord Rufford as he took his seat. "Well; that is more than I deserve."
How Things were arranged
"Jack is here," said Lord Rufford, as soon as the fuss of his late arrival had worn itself away.
"I shall be proud to renew my acquaintance."
"Can you come to-morrow?"
"Oh yes," said Arabella, rapturously.
"There are difficulties, and I ought to have written to you about them. I am going with the Fitzwilliam." Now Mistletoe was in Lincolnshire, not very far from Peterborough, not very far from Stamford, not very far from Oakham. A regular hunting man like Lord Rufford knew how to compass the difficulties of distance in all hunting countries. Horses could go by one train or overnight, and he could follow by another. And a post chaise could meet him here or there. But when a lady is added, the difficulty is often increased fivefold.
"Is it very far?" asked Arabella.
"It is a little far. I wonder who are going from here?"
"Heaven only knows. I have passed my time in playing cat's cradle with Sir Jeffrey Bunker for the amusement of the company, and in confidential communications with my aunt and Lady Drummond. I haven't heard hunting mentioned."
"Have you anything on wheels going across to Holcombe Cross to-morrow, Duke?" asked Lord Rufford. The Duke said that he did not know of anything on wheels going to Holcombe Cross. Then a hunting man who had heard the question said that he and another intended to travel by train to Oundle. Upon this Lord Rufford turned round and looked at Arabella mournfully.
"Cannot I go by train to Oundle?" she asked.
"Nothing on earth so jolly if your pastors and masters and all that will let you."
"I haven't got any pastors and masters."
"The Duchess!" suggested Lord Rufford.
"I thought all that kind of nonsense was over," said Arabella.
"I believe a great deal is over. You can do many things that your mother and grandmother couldn't do; but absolute freedom,—what you may call universal suffrage,—hasn't come yet, I fear. It's twenty miles by road, and the Duchess would say something awful if I were to propose to take you in a post chaise."
"But the railway!"
"I'm afraid that would be worse. We couldn't ride back, you know, as we did at Rufford. At the best it would be rather a rough and tumble kind of arrangement. I'm afraid we must put it off. To tell you the truth I'm the least bit in the world afraid of the Duchess."
"I am not at all," said Arabella angrily.
Then Lord Rufford ate his dinner and seemed to think that that matter was settled. Arabella knew that he might have hunted elsewhere,—that the Cottesmore would be out in their own county within twelve miles of them, and that the difficulty of that ride would be very much less. The Duke might have been persuaded to send a carriage that distance. But Lord Rufford cared more about the chance of a good run than her company! For a while she was sulky;— for a little while, till she remembered how ill she could afford to indulge in such a feeling. Then she said a demure word or two to the gentleman on the other side of her who happened to be a clergyman, and did not return to the hunting till Lord Rufford had eaten his cheese. "And is that to be the end of Jack as far as I'm concerned?"
"I have been thinking about it ever since. This is Thursday."
"Not a doubt about it."
"To-morrow will be Friday and the Duke has his great shooting on Saturday. There's nothing within a hundred miles of us on Saturday. I shall go with the Pytchley if I don't shoot, but I shall have to get up just when other people are going to bed. That wouldn't suit you."
"I wouldn't mind if I didn't go to bed at all."
"At any rate it wouldn't suit the Duchess. I had meant to go away on Sunday. I hate being anywhere on Sunday except in a railway carriage. But if I thought the Duke would keep me till Tuesday morning we might manage Peltry on Monday. I meant to have got back to Surbiton's on Sunday and have gone from there."
"Where is Peltry?"
"It's a Cottesmore meet,—about five miles this Side of Melton."
"We could ride from here."
"It's rather far for that, but we could talk over the Duke to send a carriage. Ladies always like to see a meet, and perhaps we could make a party. If not we must put a good face on it and go in anything we can get. I shouldn't fear the Duchess so much for twelve miles as I should for twenty."
"I don't mean to let the Duchess interfere with me," said Arabella in a whisper.
That evening Lord Rufford was very good-natured and managed to arrange everything. Lady Chiltern and another lady said that they would be glad to go to the meet, and a carriage or carriages were organised. But nothing was said as to Arabella's hunting because the question would immediately be raised as to her return to Mistletoe in the evening. It was, however, understood that she was to have a place in the carriage.
Arabella had gained two things. She would have her one day's hunting, and she had secured the presence of Lord Rufford at Mistletoe for Sunday. With such a man as his lordship it was almost impossible to find a moment for confidential conversation. He worked so hard at his amusements that he was as bad a lover as a barrister who has to be in Court all day,—almost as bad as a sailor who is always going round the world. On this evening it was ten o'clock before the gentlemen came into the drawing-room, and then Lord Rufford's time was spent in arranging the party for the meet on Monday. When the ladies went up to bed Arabella had had no other opportunity than what Fortune had given her at dinner.
And even then she had been watched. That juxtaposition at the dinner-table had come of chance and had been caused by Lord Rufford's late arrival. Old Sir Jeffrey should have been her neighbour, with the clergyman on the other side, an arrangement which Her Grace had thought safe with reference to the rights of the Minister to Patagonia. The Duchess, though she was at some distance down the table, had seen that her niece and Lord Rufford were intimate, and remembered immediately what had been said up-stairs. They could not have talked as they were then talking,— sometimes whispering as the Duchess could perceive very well,— unless there had been considerable former intimacy. She began gradually to understand various things;—why Arabella Trefoil had been so anxious to come to Mistletoe just at this time, why she had behaved so unlike her usual self before Lord Rufford's arrival, and why she had been so unwilling to have Mr. Morton invited. The Duchess was in her way a clever woman and could see many things. She could see that though her niece might be very anxious to marry Lord Rufford, Lord Rufford might indulge himself in a close intimacy with the girl without any such intention on his part. And, as far as the family was concerned, she would have been quite contented with the Morton alliance. She would have asked Morton now only that it would be impossible that he should come in time to be of service. Had she been consulted in the first instance she would have put her veto on that drive to the meet: but she had heard nothing about it until Lady Chiltern had said that she would go. The Duchess of Omnium had since declared that she also would go, and there were to be two carriages. But still it never occurred to the Duchess that Arabella intended to hunt. Nor did Arabella intend that she should know it till the morning came.
The Friday was very dull. The hunting men of course had gone before Arabella came down to breakfast. She would willingly have got up at seven to pour out Lord Rufford's tea, had that been possible; but, as it was, she strolled into the breakfast room at half-past ten. She could see by her aunt's eye and hear in her voice that she was in part detected; and that she would do herself no further service by acting the good girl; and she therefore resolutely determined to listen to no more twaddle. She read a French novel which she had brought with her, and spent as much of the day as she could in her bedroom. She did not see Lord Rufford before dinner, and at dinner sat between Sir Jeffrey and an old gentleman out of Stamford who dined at Mistletoe that evening. "We've had no such luck to-night," Lord Rufford said to her in the drawing-room.
"The old dragon took care of that," replied Arabella.
"Why should the old dragon think that I'm dangerous?"
"Because—; I can't very well tell you why, but I dare say you know."
"And do you think I am dangerous?"
"You're a sort of a five-barred gate," said Arabella laughing. "Of course there is a little danger, but who is going to be stopped by that?"
He could make no reply to this because the Duchess called him away to give some account to Lady Chiltern about Goarly and the U.R.U., Lady Chiltern's husband being a master of hounds and a great authority on all matters relating to hunting. "Nasty old dragon!" Arabella said to herself when she was thus left alone.
The Saturday was the day of the great shooting and at two o'clock the ladies went out to lunch with the gentlemen by the side of the wood. Lord Rufford had at last consented to be one of the party. With logs of trees, a few hurdles, and other field appliances, a rustic banqueting hall was prepared and everything was very nice. Tons of game had been killed, and tons more were to be killed after luncheon. The Duchess was not there and Arabella contrived so to place herself that she could be waited upon by Lord Rufford, or could wait upon him. Of course a great many eyes were upon her, but she knew how to sustain that. Nobody was present who could dare to interfere with her. When the eating and drinking were over she walked with him to his corner by the next covert, not heeding the other ladies; and she stood with him for some minutes after the slaughter had begun. She had come to feel that the time was slipping between her fingers and that she must say something effective. The fatal word upon which everything would depend must be spoken at the very latest on their return home on Monday, and she was aware that much must probably be said before that. "Do we hunt or shoot tomorrow?" she said.
"To-morrow is Sunday."
"I am quite aware of that, but I didn't know whether you could live a day without sport."
"The country is so full of prejudice that I am driven to Sabbatical quiescence."
"Take a walk with me to-morrow," said Arabella.
"But the Duchess," exclaimed Lord Rufford in a stage whisper. One of the beaters was so near that he could not but have heard;—but what does a beater signify?
"H'mh'm the Duchess! You be at the path behind the great conservatory at half-past three and we won't mind the Duchess." Lord Rufford was forced to ask for many other particulars as to the locality and then promised that he would be there at the time named.
"You are so severe"
On the next morning Arabella went to church as did of course a great many of the party. By remaining at home she could only have excited suspicion. The church was close to the house, and the family pew consisted of a large room screened off from the rest of the church, with a fire-place of its own,—so that the labour of attending divine service was reduced to a minimum. At two o'clock they lunched, and that amusement lasted nearly an hour. There was an afternoon service at three in attending which the Duchess was very particular. The Duke never went at that time nor was it expected that any of the gentlemen would do so; but women are supposed to require more church than men, and the Duchess rather made it a point that at any rate the young ladies staying in the house should accompany her. Over the other young ladies there her authority could only be that of influence, but such authority generally sufficed. From her niece it might be supposed that she would exact obedience, and in this instance she tried it. "We start in five minutes," she said to Arabella as that young lady was loitering at the table.
"Don't wait for me; aunt, I'm not going," said Arabella boldly.
"I hope you will come to church with us," said the Duchess sternly.
"Not this afternoon."
"Why not, Arabella?"
"I never do go to church twice on Sundays. Some people do, and some people don't. I suppose that's about it."
"I think that all young women ought to go to church on Sunday afternoon unless there is something particular to prevent them." Arabella shrugged her shoulders and the Duchess stalked angrily away.
"That makes me feel so awfully wicked," said the Duchess of Omnium, who was the only other lady then left in the room. Then she got up and went out and Arabella of course followed her. Lord Rufford had heard it all but had stood at the window and said nothing. He had not been to church at all, and was quite accustomed to the idea that as a young nobleman who only lived for pleasure he was privileged to be wicked. Had the Duchess of Mayfair been blessed with a third daughter fit for marriage she would not have thought of repudiating such a suitor as Lord Rufford because he did not go to church.
When the house was cleared Arabella went upstairs and put on her hat. It was a bright beautiful winter's day, not painfully cold because the air was dry, but still a day that warranted furs and a muff. Having prepared herself she made her way alone to a side door which led from a branch of the hall on to the garden terrace, and up and down that she walked two or three times,—so that any of the household that saw her might perceive that she had come out simply for exercise. At the end of the third turn instead of coming back she went on quickly to the conservatory and took the path which led round to the further side. There was a small lawn here fitted for garden games, and on the other end of it an iron gate leading to a path into the woods. At the further side of the iron gate and leaning against it, stood Lord Rufford smoking a cigar. She did not pause a moment but hurried across the lawn to join him. He opened the gate and she passed through. "I'm not going to be done by a dragon," she said as she took her place alongside of him.
"Upon my, word, Miss Trefoil, I don't think I ever knew a human being with so much pluck as you have got"
"Girls have to have pluck if they don't mean to be sat upon;—a great deal more than men. The idea of telling me that I was to go to church as though I were twelve years old!"
"What would she say if she knew that you were walking here with me?"
"I don't care what she'd say. I dare say she walked with somebody once;—only I should think the somebody must have found it very dull."
"Does she know that you're to hunt to-morrow?"
"I haven't told her and don't mean. I shall just come down in my habit and hat and say nothing about it. At what time must we start?"
"The carriages are ordered for half-past nine. But I'm afraid you haven't clearly before your eyes all the difficulties which are incidental to hunting."
"What do you mean?"
"It looks as like a black frost as anything I ever saw in my life."
"But we should go?"
"The horses won't be there if there is a really hard frost. Nobody would stir. It will be the first question I shall ask the man when he comes to me, and if there have been seven or eight degrees of frost I shan't get up."
"How am I to know?"
"My man shall tell your maid. But everybody will soon know all about it. It will alter everything."
"I think I shall go mad."
"In white satin?"
"No;—in my habit and hat. It will be the hardest thing, after all! I ought to have insisted on going to Holcombe Cross on Friday. The sun is shining now. Surely it cannot freeze."
"It will be uncommonly ill-bred if it does."
But, after all, the hunting was not the main point. The hunting had been only intended as an opportunity; and if that were to be lost,—in which case Lord Rufford would no doubt at once leave Mistletoe,—there was the more need for using the present hour, the more for using even the present minute. Though she had said that the sun was shining, it was the setting sun, and in another half hour the gloom of the evening would be there. Even Lord Rufford would not consent to walk about with her in the dark. "Oh, Lord Rufford," she said, "I did so look forward to your giving me another lead." Then she put her hand upon his arm and left it there.
"It would have been nice," said he, drawing her hand a little on, and remembering as he did so his own picture of himself on the cliff with his sister holding his coat-tails.
"If you could possibly know," she said, "the condition I am in."
"I know that I can trust you."
"Oh dear, yes. If you mean about telling, I never tell anything."
"That's what I do mean. You remember that man at your place?"
"What man? Poor Caneback?"
"Oh dear no! I wish they could change places because then he could give me no more trouble."
"That's wishing him to be dead, whoever he is."
"Yes. Why should he persecute me? I mean that man we were staying with at Bragton."
"Of course I do. Don't you remember your asking me about him, and my telling you that I was not engaged to him?"
"I remember that"
"Mamma and this horrid old Duchess here want me to marry him. They've got an idea that he is going to be ambassador at Pekin or something very grand, and they're at me day and night"
"You needn't take him unless you like him."
"They do make me so miserable!" And then she leaned heavily upon his arm. He was a man who could not stand such pressure as this without returning it. Though he were on the precipice, and though he must go over, still he could not stand it. "You remember that night after the ball?"
"Indeed I do."
"And you too had asked me whether I cared for that horrid man."
"I didn't see anything horrid. You had been staying at his house and people had told me. What was I to think?"
"You ought to have known what to think. There; let me go,"—for now he had got his arm round her waist. "You don't care for me a bit. I know you don't. It would be all the same to you whom I married;—or whether I died."
"You don't think that, Bella?" He fancied that he had heard her mother call her Bella, and that the name was softer and easier than the full four syllables. It was at any rate something for her to have gained.
"I do think it. When I came here on purpose to have a skurry over the country with you, you went away to Holcombe Cross though you could have hunted here, close in the neighbourhood. And now you tell me there will be a frost to-morrow."
"Can I help that, darling?"
"Darling! I ain't your darling. You don't care a bit for me. I believe you hope there'll be a frost." He pressed her tighter, but laughed as he did so. It was evidently a joke to him;—a pleasant joke no doubt. "Leave me alone, Lord Rufford. I won't let you, for I know you don't love me." Very suddenly he did leave his hold of her and stood erect with his hands in his pockets, for the rustle of a dress was heard. It was still daylight, but the light was dim and the last morsel of the grandeur of the sun had ceased to be visible through the trees. The church-going people had been released, and the Duchess having probably heard certain tidings, had herself come to take a walk in the shrubbery behind the conservatory. Arabella had probably been unaware that she and her companion by a turn in the walks were being brought back towards the iron gate. As it was they met the Duchess face to face.
Lord Rufford had spoken the truth when he had said that he was a little afraid of the Duchess. Such was his fear that at the moment he hardly knew what he was to say. Arabella had boasted when she had declared that she was not at all afraid of her aunt;—but she was steadfastly minded that she would not be cowed by her fears. She had known beforehand that she would have occasion for much presence of mind, and was prepared to exercise it at a moment's notice. She was the first to speak. "Is that you, aunt? you are out of church very soon."
"Lord Rufford," said the Duchess, "I don't think this is a proper time for walking out."
"Don't you, Duchess? The air is very nice."
"It is becoming dark and my niece had better return to the house with me. Arabella, you can come this way. It is just as short as the other. If you go on straight, Lord Rufford, it will take you to the house." Of course Lord Rufford went on straight and of course Arabella had to turn with her aunt. "Such conduct as this is shocking," began the Duchess.
"Aunt, let me tell you."
"What can you tell me?"
"I can tell you a great deal if you will let me. Of course I am quite prepared to own that I did not intend to tell you anything."
"I can well believe that"
"Because I could hardly hope for your sympathy. You have never liked me."
"You have no right to say that"
"I don't do it in the way of finding fault. I don't know why you should. But I have been too much afraid of you to tell you my secrets. I must do so now because you have found me walking with Lord Rufford. I could not otherwise excuse myself."
"Is he engaged to marry you?"
"He has asked me"
"But he has, aunt. You must be a little patient and let me tell it you all. Mamma did make up an engagement between me and Mr. Morton at Washington."
"Did you know Lord Rufford then?"
"I knew him, but did not think he was behaving quite well. It is very hard sometimes to know what a man means. I was angry when I went to Washington. He has told me since that he loves me,—and has offered."
"But you are engaged to marry the other man."
"Nothing on earth shall make me marry Mr. Morton. Mamma did it, and mamma now has very nearly broken it off because she says he is very shabby about money. Indeed it is broken off. I bad told him so even before Lord Rufford had proposed to me."
"When did he propose and where?"
"At Rufford. We were staying there in November."
"And you asked to come here that you might meet him?"
"Just so. Was that strange? Where could I be better pleased to meet him than in my uncle's house?"
"Yes;—if you had told us all this before."
"Perhaps I ought; but you are so severe, I did not dare. Do not turn against me now. My uncle could not but like that his niece should marry Lord Rufford."
"How can I turn against you if it is settled? Lord Rufford can do as he pleases. Has he told your father,—or your mother?"
"Mamma knows it."
"But not from him?" asked the Duchess.
Arabella paused a moment but hardly a moment before she answered. It was hard upon her that she should have to make up her mind on matters of such importance with so little time for consideration. "Yes," she said; "mamma knows it from him. Papa is so very indifferent about everything that Lord Rufford has not spoken to him."
"If so, it will be best that the Duke should speak to him."
There was another pause, but hardly long enough to attract notice. "Perhaps so," she said; "but not quite yet. He is so peculiar, so touchy. The Duke is not quite like my father and he would think himself suspected."
"I cannot imagine that if he is in earnest."
"That is because you do not know him as I do. Only think where I should be if I were to lose him!"
"Oh, aunt, now that you know it I do hope that you will be my friend. It would kill me if he were to throw me over."
"But why should he throw you over if he proposed to you only last month?"
"He might do it if he thought that he were interfered with. Of course I should like my uncle to speak to him, but not quite immediately: If he were to say that he had changed his mind, what could I do, or what could my uncle do?"
"That would be very singular conduct."
"Men are so different now, aunt. They give themselves so much more latitude. A man has only to say that he has changed his mind and nothing ever comes of it."
"I have never been used to such men, my dear."
"At any rate do not ask the Duke to speak to him to-day. I will think about it and perhaps you will let me see you to-morrow, after we all come in." To this the Duchess gravely assented. "And I hope you won't be angry because you found me walking with him, or because I did not go to church. It is everything to me. I am sure, dear aunt, you will understand that" To this the Duchess made no reply, and they both entered the house together. What became of Lord Rufford neither of them saw.
Arabella when she regained her room thought that upon the whole fortune had favoured her by throwing her aunt in her way. She had, no doubt, been driven to tell a series of barefaced impudent lies,—lies of such a nature that they almost made her own hair stand on end as she thought of them;—but they would matter nothing if she succeeded; and if she failed in this matter she did not care much what her aunt thought of her. Her aunt might now do her a good turn; and some lies she must have told;—such had been the emergencies of her position! As she thought of it all she was glad that her aunt had met her; and when Lord Rufford was summoned to take her out to dinner on that very Sunday,—a matter as to which her aunt managed everything herself,—she was immediately aware that her lies had done her good service.
"This was more than I expected," Lord Rufford said when they were seated.
"She knew that she had overdone it when she sent you away in that cavalier way," replied Arabella, "and now she wants to show that she didn't mean anything."
The Day at Peltry
The Duchess did tell the Duke the whole story about Lord Rufford and Arabella that night,—as to which it may be said that she also was false. But according to her conscience there were two ways of telling such a secret. As a matter of course she told her husband everything. That idle placid dinner-loving man was in truth consulted about each detail of the house and family; but the secret was told to him with injunctions that he was to say nothing about it to any one for twenty-four hours. After that the Duchess was of opinion that he should speak to Lord Rufford. "What could I say to him?" asked the Duke. "I'm not her father."
"But your brother is so indifferent"
"No doubt. But that gives me no authority. If he does mean to marry the girl he must go to her father; or it is possible that he might come to me. But if he does not mean it, what can I do?" He promised, however, that he would think of it.
It was still dark night, or the morning was dark as night, when Arabella got out of bed and opened her window. The coming of a frost now might ruin her. The absence of it might give her everything in life that she wanted. Lord Rufford had promised her a tedious communication through servants as to the state of the weather. She was far too energetic, far too much in earnest, to wait for that. She opened the window and putting out her hand she felt a drizzle of rain. And the air, though the damp from it seemed to chill her all through, was not a frosty air. She stood there a minute so as to be sure and then retreated to her bed.
Fortune was again favouring her;—but then how would it be if it should turn to hard rain? In that case Lady Chiltern and the other ladies certainly would not go, and how in such case should she get herself conveyed to the meet? She would at any rate go down in her hat and habit and trust that somebody would provide for her. There might be much that would be disagreeable and difficult, but hardly anything could be worse than the necessity of telling such lies as those which she had fabricated on the previous afternoon.
She had been much in doubt whether her aunt had or had not believed her. That the belief was not a thorough belief she was almost certain. But then there was the great fact that after the story had been told she had been sent out to dinner leaning on Lord Rufford's arm. Unless her aunt had believed something that would not have taken place. And then so much of it was true. Surely it would be impossible that he should not propose after what had occurred! Her aunt was evidently alive to the advantage of the marriage, to the advantage which would accrue not to her, Arabella, individually, but to the Trefoils generally. She almost thought that her aunt would not put spokes in her wheel for this day. She wished now that she had told her aunt that she intended to hunt, so that there need not be any surprise.
She slept again and again looked out of the window. It rained a little but still there were hours in which the rain might cease. Again she slept and at eight her maid brought her word that there would be hunting. It did rain a little but very little. Of course she would dress herself in riding attire.
At nine o'clock she walked into the breakfast parlour properly equipped for the day's sport. There were four or five men there in red coats and top boots, among whom Lord Rufford was conspicuous. They were just seating themselves at the breakfast table, and her aunt was already in her place. Lady Chiltern had come into the room with herself, and at the door had spoken some good-natured words of surprise. "I did not know that you were a sportswoman, Miss Trefoil." "I do ride a little when I am well mounted," Arabella had said as she entered the room. Then she collected herself, and arranged her countenance, and endeavoured to look as though she were doing the most ordinary thing in the world. She went round the room and kissed her aunt's brow. This she had not done on any other morning; but then on other mornings she had been late. "Are you going to ride?" said the Duchess.
"I believe so, aunt."
"Who is giving you a horse?"
"Lord Rufford is lending me one. I don't think even his good-nature will extend to giving away so perfect an animal. I know him well for I rode him when I was at Rufford." This she said so that all the room should hear her.
"You need not be afraid, Duchess," said Lord Rufford. "He is quite safe"
"And his name is Jack," said Arabella laughing as she took her place with a little air of triumph. "Lord Rufford offered to let me have him all the time I was here, but I didn't know whether you would take me in so attended."
There was not one who heard her who did not feel that she spoke as though Lord Rufford were all her own. Lord Rufford felt it himself and almost thought he might as well turn himself round and bid his sister and Miss Penge let him go. He must marry some day and why should not this girl do as well as any one else? The Duchess did not approve of young ladies hunting. She certainly would not have had her niece at Mistletoe had she expected such a performance. But she could not find fault now. There was a feeling in her bosom that if there were an engagement it would be cruel to cause obstructions. She certainly could not allow a lover in her house for her husband's niece without having official authenticated knowledge of the respectability of the lover; but the whole thing had come upon her so suddenly that she was at a loss what to do or what to say. It certainly did not seem to her that Arabella was in the least afraid of being found out in any untruth. If the girl were about to become Lady Rufford then it would be for Lord Rufford to decide whether or no she should hunt. Soon after this the Duke came in and he also alluded to his niece's costume and was informed that she was to ride one of Lord Rufford's horses. "I didn't hear it mentioned before," said the Duke. "He'll carry Miss Trefoil quite safely," said Lord Rufford who was at the moment standing over a game pie on the sideboard. Then the subject was allowed to drop.
At half-past nine there was no rain, and the ladies were so nearly punctual that the carriages absolutely started at ten. Some of the men rode on; one got a seat on the carriage; and Lord Rufford drove himself and a friend in a dog-cart, tandem. The tandem was off before the carriages, but Lord Rufford assured them that he would get the master to allow them a quarter of an hour. Arabella contrived to say one word to him. "If you start without me I'll never speak to you again." He nodded and smiled; but perhaps thought that if so it might be as well that he should start without waiting for her.
At the last moment the Duchess had taken it into her head that she too would go to the meet. No doubt she was actuated by some feeling in regard to her niece; but it was not till Arabella was absolutely getting on to Jack at the side of the carriage,—under the auspices of Jack's owner,—that the idea occurred to her Grace that there would be a great difficulty as to the return home. "Arabella, how do you mean to get back?" she asked.
"That will be all right, aunt," said Arabella.
"I will see to that," said Lord Rufford.
The gracious but impatient master of the hounds had absolutely waited full twenty minutes for the Duchess's party; and was not minded to wait a minute longer for conversation. The moment that the carriages were there the huntsmen had started so that there was an excuse for hurry. Lord Rufford as he was speaking got on to his own horse, and before the Duchess could expostulate they were away. There was a feeling of triumph in Arabella's bosom as she told herself that she had at any rate secured her day's hunting in spite of such heart-breaking difficulties.
The sport was fairly good. They had twenty minutes in the morning and a kill. Then they drew a big wood during which they ate their lunch and drank their sherry. In the big wood they found a fox but could not do anything with him. After that they came on a third in a stubble field and ran him well for half an hour, when he went to ground. It was then three o'clock; and as the days were now at the shortest the master declined to draw again. They were then about sixteen miles from Mistletoe, and about ten from Stamford where Lord Rufford's horses were standing. The distance from Stamford to Mistletoe was eight. Lord Rufford proposed that they should ride to Stamford and then go home in a hired carriage. There seemed indeed to be no other way of getting home without taking three tired horses fourteen miles out of their way. Arabella made no objection whatever to the arrangement. Lord Rufford did in truth make a slight effort,—the slightest possible,—to induce a third person to join their party. There was still something pulling at his coat-tail, so that there might yet be a chance of saving him from the precipice. But he failed. The tired horseman before whom the suggestion was casually thrown out, would have been delighted to accept it, instead of riding all the way to Mistletoe; but he did not look upon it as made in earnest. Two, he knew, were company and three none.
The hunting field is by no means a place suited for real love-making. Very much of preliminary conversation may be done there in a pleasant way, and intimacies may be formed. But when lovers have already walked with arms round each other in a wood, riding together may be very pleasant but can hardly be ecstatic. Lord Rufford might indeed have asked her to be Lady R. while they were breaking up the first fox, or as they loitered about in the big wood;—but she did not expect that. There was no moment during the day's sport in which she had a right to tell herself that he was misbehaving because he did not so ask her. But in a post chaise it would be different.
At the inn at Stamford the horses were given up, and Arabella condescended to take a glass of cherry brandy. She had gone through a long day; it was then half-past four, and she was not used to be many hours on horseback. The fatigue seemed to her to be very much greater than it had been when she got back to Rufford immediately after the fatal accident. The ten miles along the road, which had been done in little more than an hour, had almost overcome her. She had determined not to cry for mercy. as the hard trot went on. She had passed herself off as an accustomed horsewoman, and having done so well across the country, would not break down coming home. But, as she got into the carriage, she was very tired. She could almost have cried with fatigue;—and yet she told herself that now,— now,—must the work be done. She would perhaps tell him that she was tired. She might even assist her cause by her languor; but, though she should die for it, she would not waste her precious moments by absolute rest. "May I light a cigar?" he said as he got in.
"You know you may. Wherever I may be with you do you think that I would interfere with your gratifications?"
"You are the best girl in all the world," he said as he took out his case and threw himself back in the corner."
"Do you call that a long day?" she asked when he had lit his cigar.
"Not very long."
"Because I am so tired."
"We came home pretty sharp. I thought it best not to shock her Grace by too great a stretch into the night. As it is you will have time to go to bed for an hour or two before you dress. That's what I do when I am in time. You'll be right as a trivet then."
"Oh; I'm right now,—only tired. It was very nice."
"Pretty well. We ought to have killed that last fox. And why on earth we made nothing of that fellow in Gooseberry Grove I couldn't understand. Old Tony would never have left that fox alive above ground. Would you like to go to sleep?"
"O dear no."
"Afraid of gloves?" said he, drawing nearer to her. They might pull him as they liked by his coat-tails but as he was in a post chaise with her he must make himself agreeable. She shook her head and laughed as she looked at him through the gloom. Then of course he kissed her.
"Lord Rufford, what does this mean?"
"Don't you know what it means?"
"It means that I think you the jolliest girl out. I never liked anybody so well as I do you."
"Perhaps you never liked anybody," said she.
"Well;—yes, I have; but I am not going to boast of what fortune has done for me in that way. I wonder whether you care for me?"
"Do you want to know?"
"I should like to know that you did."
"Because you have never asked me."
"Am I not asking you now, Bella?"
"There are different ways of asking,—but there is only one way that will get an answer from me. No;—no. I will not have it. I have allowed too much to you already. Oh, I am so tired." Then she sank back almost into his arms,—but recovered herself very quickly. "Lord Rufford," she said, "if you are a man of honour let there be an end of this. I am sure you do not wish to make me wretched."
"I would do anything to make you happy."
"Then tell me that you love me honestly, sincerely, with all your heart,—and I shall be happy."
"You know I do."
"Do you? Do you?" she said, and then she flung herself on to his shoulder, and for a while she seemed to faint. For a few minutes she lay there and as she was lying she calculated whether it would be better to try at this moment to drive him to some clearer declaration, or to make use of what he had already said without giving him an opportunity of protesting that he had not meant to make her an offer of marriage. He had declared that he loved her honestly and with his whole heart. Would not that justify her in setting her uncle at him? And might it not be that the Duke would carry great weight with him;—that the Duke might induce him to utter the fatal word though she, were she to demand it now, might fail? As she thought of it all she affected to swoon, and almost herself believed that she was swooning. She was conscious but hardly more than conscious that he was kissing her;—and yet her brain was at work. She felt that he would be startled, repelled, perhaps disgusted were she absolutely to demand more from him now. "Oh, Rufford;—oh, my dearest," she said as she woke up, and with her face close to his, so that he could look into her eyes and see their brightness even through the gloom. Then she extricated herself from his embrace with a shudder and a laugh. "You would hardly believe how tired I am," she said putting out her ungloved hand. He took it and drew her to him and there she sat in his arms for the short remainder of the journey.
They were now in the park, and as the lights of the house came in sight he gave her some counsel. "Go up to your room at once, dearest, and lay down."
"I will. I don't think I could go in among them. I should fall."
"I will see the Duchess and tell her that you are all right, but very tired. If she goes up to you had better see her."
"Oh, yes. But I had rather not."
"She'll be sure to come. And, Bella, Jack must be yours now."
"You are joking."
"Never more serious in my life. Of course he must remain with me just at present, but he is your horse." Then, as the carriage was stopping, she took his hand and kissed it.
She got to her room as quickly as possible; and then, before she had even taken off her hat, she sat down to think of it all,— sending her maid away meanwhile to fetch her a cup of tea. He must have meant it for an offer. There had at any rate been enough to justify her in so taking it. The present he had made to her of the horse could mean nothing else. Under no other circumstances would it be possible that she should either take the horse or use him. Certainly it was an offer, and as such she would instruct her uncle to use it. Then she allowed her imagination to revel in thoughts of Rufford Hall, of the Rufford house in town, and a final end to all those weary labours which she would thus have brought to so glorious a termination.
Lord Rufford wants to see a Horse
Lord Rufford had been quite right about the Duchess. Arabella had only taken off her hat and was drinking her tea when the Duchess came up to her. "Lord Rufford says that you were too tired to come in," said the Duchess.
"I am tired, aunt;—very tired. But there is nothing the matter with me. We had to ride ever so far coming home and it was that knocked up.
"It was very bad, your in a post chaise, Arabella."
"Why was it bad, aunt? I thought it very nice."
"My dear, it shouldn't have been done. You ought to have known that. I certainly wouldn't have had you here had I thought that there would be anything of the kind."
"It is going to be all right," said Arabella laughing.
According to her Grace's view of things it was not and could not be made "all right." It would not have been all right were the girl to become Lady Rufford to-morrow. The scandal, or loud reproach due to evil doings, may be silenced by subsequent conduct. The merited punishment may not come visibly. But nothing happening after could make it right that a young lady should come home from hunting in a post chaise alone with a young unmarried man. When the Duchess first heard it she thought what would have been her feelings if such a thing had been suggested in reference to one of her own daughters! Lord Rufford had come to her in the drawing-room and had told her the story in a quiet pleasant manner,—merely saying that Miss Trefoil was too much fatigued to show herself at the present moment. She had thought from his manner that her niece's story had been true. There was a cordiality and apparent earnestness as to the girl's comfort which seemed to be compatible with the story. But still she could hardly understand that Lord Rufford should wish to have it known that he travelled about the country in such a fashion with the girl he intended to marry. But if it were true, then she must look after her niece. And even if it were not true,— in which case she would never have the girl at Mistletoe again,— yet she could not ignore her presence in the house. It was now the 18th of January. Lord Rufford was to go on the following day, and Arabella on the 20th. The invitation had not been given so as to stretch beyond that. If it could be at once decided,—declared by Lord Rufford to the Duke,—that the match was to be a match, then the invitation should be renewed, Arabella should be advised to put off her other friends, and Lord Rufford should be invited to come back early in the next month and spend a week or two in the proper fashion with his future bride. All that had been settled between the Duke and the Duchess. So much should be done for the sake of the family. But the Duke had not seen his way to asking Lord Rufford any question.
The Duchess must now find out the truth if she could,—so that if the story were false she might get rid of the girl and altogether shake her off from the Mistletoe roof tree. Arabella's manner was certainly free from any appearance of hesitation or fear. "I don't know about being all right," said the Duchess. "It cannot be right that you should have come home with him alone in a hired carriage."
"Is a hired carriage wickeder than a private one?"
"If a carriage had been sent from here for you, it would have been different;—but even then he should not have come with you."
"But he would I'm sure;—and I should have asked him. What;—the man I'm engaged to marry! Mayn't he sit in a carriage with me?"
The Duchess could not explain herself, and thought that she had better drop that topic. "What does he mean to do now, Arabella?"
"What does who mean, aunt?"
"He means to marry me. And he means to go from here to Mr. Surbiton's to-morrow. I don't quite understand the question."
"And what do you mean to do?"
"I mean to marry him. And I mean to join mamma in London on Wednesday. I believe we are to go to the Connop Green's the next day. Mr. Connop Green is a sort of cousin of mamma;—but they are odious people."
"Who is to see Lord Rufford? However, my dear, if you are very tired, I will leave you now."
"No, aunt. Stay a moment if you will be so very kind. I am tired; but if I were twice as tired I would find strength to talk about this. If my uncle would speak to Lord Rufford at once I should take it as the very kindest thing he could do. I could not send him to my uncle; for, after all, one's uncle and one's father are not the same. I could only refer him to papa. But if the Duke would speak to him!"
"Did he renew his offer to-day?"
"He has done nothing else but renew it ever since he has been in the carriage with me. That's the plain truth. He made his offer at Rufford. He renewed it in the wood yesterday;—and he repeated it over and over again as we came home to-day. It may have been very wrong, but so it was." Miss Trefoil must have thought that kissing and proposing were the same thing. Other young ladies have, perhaps, before now made such a mistake. But this young lady had had much experience and should have known better.
"Lord Rufford had better perhaps speak to your uncle."
"Will you tell him so, aunt?"
The Duchess thought about it for a moment. She certainly could not tell Lord Rufford to speak to the Duke without getting the Duke's leave to tell him so. And then, if all this were done, and Lord Rufford were to assure the Duke that the young lady had made a mistake, how derogatory would all that be to the exalted quiescence of the house of Mayfair! She thoroughly wished that her niece were out of the house; for though she did believe the story, her belief was not thorough. "I will speak to your uncle," she said. "And now you had better go to sleep."
"And, dear aunt, pray excuse me at dinner. I have been so excited, so flurried, and so fatigued, that I fear I should make a fool of myself if I attempted to come down. I should get into a swoon, which would be dreadful. My maid shall bring me a bit of something and a glass of sherry, and you shall find me in the drawing-room when you come out" Then the Duchess went, and Arabella was left alone to take another view of the circumstances of the campaign.
Though there were still infinite dangers, yet she could hardly wish that anything should be altered. Should Lord Rufford disown her, which she knew to be quite possible, there would be a general collapse and the world would crash over her head. But she had known, when she took this business in hand, that as success would open Elysium to her, so would failure involve her in absolute ruin. She was determined that she would mar nothing now by cowardice, and having so resolved, and having fortified herself with perhaps two glasses of sherry, she went down to the drawing-room a little before nine, and laid herself out upon a sofa till the ladies should come in.
Lord Rufford had gone to bed, as was his wont on such occasions, with orders that he should be called to dress for dinner at half-past seven. But as he laid himself down he made up his mind that, instead of sleeping, he would give himself up to thinking about Arabella Trefoil. The matter was going beyond a joke, and would require some thinking. He liked her well enough, but was certainly not in love with her. I doubt whether men ever are in love with girls who throw themselves into their arms. A man's love, till it has been chastened and fastened by the feeling of duty which marriage brings with it, is instigated mainly by the difficulty of pursuit. "It is hardly possible that anything so sweet as that should ever be mine; and yet, because I am a man, and because it is so heavenly sweet, I will try." That is what men say to themselves, but Lord Rufford had had no opportunity of saying that to himself in regard to Miss Trefoil. The thing had been sweet, but not heavenly sweet; and he had never for a moment doubted the possibility. Now at any rate he would make up his mind. But, instead of doing so, he went to sleep, and when he got up he was ten minutes late, and was forced, as he dressed himself, to think of the Duke's dinner instead of Arabella Trefoil.
The Duchess before dinner submitted herself and all her troubles at great length to the Duke, but the Duke could give her no substantial comfort. Of course it had all been wrong. He supposed that they ought not to have been found walking together in the dark on Sunday afternoon. The hunting should not have been arranged without sanction; and the return home in the hired carriage had no doubt been highly improper. But what could he do? If the marriage came off it would be all well. If not, this niece must not be invited to Mistletoe again. As to speaking to Lord Rufford, he did not quite see how he was to set about it. His own girls had been married in so very different a fashion! He could imagine nothing so disagreeable as to have to ask a gentleman his intentions. Parental duty might make it necessary when a daughter had not known how to keep her own position intact; but here there was no parental duty. If Lord Rufford would speak to him, then indeed there would be no difficulty. At last he told his wife that, if she could find an opportunity of suggesting to the young Lord that, he might perhaps say a word to the young lady's uncle without impropriety, if she could do this in a light easy way, so as to run no peril of a scene,—she might do so.
When the two duchesses and all the other ladies came out into the drawing-room, Arabella was found upon the sofa. Of course she became the centre of a little interest for a few minutes, and the more so, as her aunt went up to her and made some inquiries. Had she had any dinner? Was she less fatigued? The fact of the improper return home in the post chaise had become generally known, and there were some there who would have turned a very cold shoulder to Arabella had not her aunt noticed her. Perhaps there were some who had envied her Jack, and Lord Rufford's admiration, and even the post chaise. But as long as her aunt countenanced her it was not likely that any one at Mistletoe would be unkind to her. The Duchess of Omnium did indeed remark to Lady Chiltern that she remembered something of the same kind happening to the same girl soon after her own marriage. As the Duchess had now been married a great many years this was unkind,—but it was known that when the Duchess of Omnium did dislike any one, she never scrupled to show it. "Lord Rufford is about the silliest man of his day," she said afterwards to the same lady; "but there is one thing which I do not think even he is silly enough to do."
It was nearly ten o'clock when the gentlemen came into the room and then it was that the Duchess,—Arabella's aunt,—must find the opportunity of giving Lord Rufford the hint of which the Duke had spoken. He was to leave Mistletoe on the morrow and might not improbably do so early. Of all women she was the steadiest, the most tranquil, the least abrupt in her movements. She could not pounce upon a man, and nail him down, and say what she had to say, let him be as unwilling as he might to hear it. At last, however, seeing Lord Rufford standing alone,—he had then just left the sofa on which Arabella was still lying,—without any apparent effort she made her way up to his side. "You had rather a long day," she said.
"Not particularly, Duchess."
"You had to come home so far!"
"About the average distance. Did you think it a hard day, Maurice?" Then he called to his aid a certain Lord Maurice St. John, a hard-riding and hard-talking old friend of the Trefoil family who gave the Duchess a very clear account of all the performance, during which Lord Rufford fell into an interesting conversation with Mrs. Mulready, the wife of the neighbouring bishop.
After that the Duchess made another attempt. "Lord Rufford," she said, "we should be so glad if you would come back to us the first week in February. The Prices will be here and the Mackenzies, and—."
"I am pledged to stay with my sister till the fifth, and on the sixth Surbiton and all his lot come to me. Battersby, is it not the sixth that you and Surbiton come to Rufford?"
"I rather think it is," said Battersby.
"I wish it were possible. I like Mistletoe so much. It's so central."
"Very well for hunting;—is it not, Lord Rufford?" But that horrid Captain Battersby did not go out of the way.
"I wonder whether Lady Chiltern would do me a favour," said Lord Rufford stepping across the room in search of that lady. He might be foolish, but when the Duchess of Omnium declared him to be the silliest man of the day I think she used a wrong epithet. The Duchess was very patient and intended to try again, but on that evening she got no opportunity.
Captain Battersby was Lord Rufford's particular friend on this occasion and had come over with him from Mr. Surbiton's house. "Bat," he said as they were sitting close to each other in the smoking-room that night, "I mean to make an early start tomorrow."
"What;—to get to Surbiton's?"
"I've got something to do on the way. I want to look at a horse at Stamford."
"I'll be off with you."
"No;—don't do that. I'll go in my own cart. I'll make my man get hold of my groom and manage it somehow. I can leave my things and you can bring them. Only say to-morrow that I was obliged to go."
"Heard something, you know, and all that kind of thing. Make my apologies to the Duchess. In point of fact I must be in Stamford at ten."
"I'll manage it all," said Captain Battersby, who made a very shrewd guess at the cause which drew his friend to such an uncomfortable proceeding. After that Lord Rufford went to his room and gave a good deal of trouble that night to some of the servants in reference to the steps which would be necessary to take him out of harm's way before the Duchess would be up on the morrow.
Arabella when she heard of the man's departure on the following morning, which she luckily did from her own maid, was for some time overwhelmed by it. Of course the man was running away from her. There could be no doubt of it. She had watched him narrowly on the previous evening, and had seen that her aunt had tried in vain to speak to him. But she did not on that account give up the game. At any rate they had not found her out at Mistletoe. That was something. Of course it would have been infinitely better for her could he have been absolutely caught and nailed down before he left the house; but that was perhaps more than she had a right to expect. She could still pursue him; still write to him;—and at last, if necessary, force her father to do so. But she must trust now chiefly to her own correspondence.
"He told me, aunt, the last thing last night that he was going," she said.
"Why did you not mention it?"
"I thought he would have told you. I saw him speaking to you. He had received some telegram about a horse. He's the most flighty man in the world about such things. I am to write to him before I leave this to-morrow." Then the Duchess did not believe a word of the engagement. She felt at any rate certain that if there was an engagement, Lord Rufford did not mean to keep it.