“Mamma, read that letter.”
It was Mrs Dale’s eldest daughter who spoke to her, and they were alone together in the parlour at the Small House. Mrs Dale took the letter and read it very carefully. She then put it back into its envelope and returned it to Bell.
“It is, at any rate, a good letter, and, as I believe, tells the truth.”
“I think it tells a little more than the truth, mamma. As you say, it is a well-written letter. He always writes well when he is in earnest. But yet —”
“Yet what, my dear?”
“There is more head than heart in it.”
“If so, he will suffer the less; that is, if you are quite resolved in the matter.”
“I am quite resolved, and I do not think he will suffer much. He would not, I suppose, have taken the trouble to write like that, if he did not wish this thing.”
“I am quite sure that he does wish it, most earnestly; and that he will be greatly disappointed.”
“As he would be if any other scheme did not turn out to his satisfaction; that is all.”
The letter, of course, was from Bell’s cousin Bernard, and containing the strongest plea he was able to make in favour, of his suit for her hand. Bernard Dale was better able to press such a plea by letter than by spoken words. He was a man capable of doing anything well in the doing of, which a little time for consideration might be given to him; but he had not in him that power of passion which will force a man to eloquence in asking for that which he desires to obtain. His letter on this occasion was long, and well argued. If there was little in it of passionate love, there was much of pleasant flattery. He told Bell how advantageous to both their families their marriage would be; he declared to her, that his own feeling in the matter had been rendered stronger by absence; he alluded without boasting to his past career of life as her best guarantee for his future conduct; he explained to her that if this marriage could be arranged there need then, at any rate, be no further question as to his aunt removing with Lily from the Small House; and then he told her that his affection for herself was the absorbing passion of his existence. Had the letter been written with the view of obtaining from a third person a favourable verdict as to his suit, it would have been a very good letter indeed; but there vas not a word in it that could stir the heart of such a girl as Bell Dale.
“Answer him kindly,” Mrs Dale said.
“As kindly as I know how,” said Bell. “I wish you would write the letter, mamma.”
“I fear that would not do. What I should say would only tempt him to try again.”
Mrs Dale knew very well-had known for some months past — that Bernard’s suit was hopeless. She felt certain, although the matter had not been discussed between them, that whenever Dr Crofts might choose to come again and ask for her daughter’s hand he would not be refused. Of the two men she probably liked Dr Crofts the best; but she liked them both, and she could not but remember that the one, in a worldly point of view, would be a very poor match, whereas the other would, in all respects, be excellent. She would not, on any account, say a word to influence her daughter, and knew, moreover, that no word which she could say would influence her; but she could not divest herself of some regret that it should be so.
“I know what you would wish, mamma,” said Bell.
“I have but one wish, dearest, and that is for your happiness. May God preserve you from any such fate as Lily’s. When I tell you to write kindly to your cousin, I simply mean that I think him to have deserved a kind reply by his honesty.”
“It shall be as kind as I can make it, mamma; but you know what the lady says in the play — how hard it is to take the sting from that word ‘no.’” Then Bell walked out alone for a while, and on her return got her desk and wrote her letter. It was very firm and decisive. As for that wit which should pluck the sting “from such a sharp and waspish word as ‘no,’” I fear she had it not. “It will be better to make him understand that I, also, am in earnest,” she said to herself; and in this frame of mind she wrote her letter. “Pray do not allow yourself to think that what I have said is unfriendly,” she added, in a postscript. “I know how good you are, and I know the great value of what I refuse; but in this matter it must be my duty to tell you the simple truth.”
It had been decided between the squire and Mrs Dale that the removal from the Small House to Guestwick was not to take place till the first of May. When he had been made to understand that Dr Crofts had thought it injudicious that Lily should be taken out of their present house in March, he had used all the eloquence of which he was master to induce Mrs Dale to consent to abandon her project. He had told her that he had always considered that house as belonging, of right, to some other of the family than himself; that it had always been so inhabited, and that no squire of Allington had for years past taken rent for it. “There is no favour conferred — none at all,” he had said; but speaking nevertheless in his usual sharp, ungenial tone.
“There is a favour, a great favour, and great generosity,” Mrs Dale had replied. “And I have never been too proud to accept it; but when I tell you that we think we shall be happier at Guestwick, you will not, refuse to let us go. Lily has had a great blow in that house, and Bell feels that she is running counter to your wishes on her behalf-wishes that are so very kind!’’
“No more need be said about that. All that may come right yet, if you will remain where you are.”
But Mrs Dale knew that “all that” could never come right, and persisted. Indeed, she would hardly have dared to tell her girls that she had yielded to the squire’s entreaties. It was just then, at that very, time, that the squire was, as it were, in treaty with the earl about Lily’s fortune; and he did feel it hard that, he should be opposed in such a way by his own relatives at the moment when he was behaving towards them with so much generosity. But in his arguments about the house he said nothing of Lily, or her future prospects.
They were to move on the first of May, and one week of April was already past. The squire had said nothing further on the matter after the interview with Mrs Dale to which allusion has just been made. He was vexed and sore at the separation, thinking that he was ill-used, by the feeling, which was displayed by this refusal. He had done his duty by them, as he thought; indeed more than his duty, and now they told him that they were leaving him because they could no longer bear the weight of an obligation conferred by his hands. But in truth he did not understand them; nor did they understand him. He had been hard in his manner, and had occasionally domineered, not feeling that his position, though it gave him all the privileges of a near and a dear friend, did not give him the authority of a father or a husband. In that matter of Bernard’s proposed marriage he had spoken as though Bell should have considered his wishes before she refused her cousin. He had taken upon himself to scold Mrs Dale, and had thereby given offence to the girls, which they at the time had found it utterly impossible to forgive.
But they were hardly better satisfied in the matter than was he; and now that the time had come, though they could not bring themselves to go back from their demand, almost felt that they were treating the squire with cruelty. When their decision had been made — while it had been making — he had been stern and hard to them. Since that he had been softened by Lily’s misfortune, and softened also by the anticipated loneliness which would come upon him when they should be gone from his side. It was hard upon him that they should so treat him when he was doing his best for them all! And they also felt this, though they did not know the extent to which he was anxious to go in serving them. When they had sat round the fire planning the scheme of their removal, their hearts had been hardened against him, and they had resolved to assert their independence. But now, when the time for action had come, they felt that their grievances against him had already been in a great measure assuaged. This tinged all that they did with a certain sadness; but still they continued their work.
Who does not know how terrible are those preparations for house-moving — how infinite in number are the articles which must be packed, how inexpressibly uncomfortable is the period of packing, and how poor and tawdry is the aspect of one’s belongings while they are thus in a state of dislocation? Nowadays people who understand the world, and have money commensurate with their understanding, have learned the way of shunning all these disasters, and of leaving the work to the hands of persons paid for doing it. The crockery is left in the cupboards, the books on the shelves, the wine in the bins, the curtains in their poles, and the family that is understanding goes for a fortnight to Brighton. At the end of that time the crockery is comfortably settled in other cupboards, the books on other shelves, the wine in other bins, the curtains are hung on other poles, and all is arranged. But Mrs Dale and her daughters understood nothing of such a method of moving as this. The assistance of the village carpenter in filling certain cases that he had made was all that they knew how to obtain beyond that of their own two servants. Every article had to pass through the hands of some one of the family; and as they felt almost overwhelmed by the extent of the work to be done, they began it much sooner than was necessary, so that it became evident as they advanced in their work, that they would have to pass a dreadfully dull, stupid, uncomfortable week at last, among their boxes and cases, in all the confusion of dismantled furniture.
At first an edict had gone forth that Lily was to do nothing. She was an invalid, and was to be petted and kept quiet. But this edict soon fell to the ground, and Lily worked harder than either her mother or her sister. In truth she was hardly an invalid any longer, and would not submit to an invalid’s treatment. She felt herself that for the present constant occupation could alone save her from the misery of looking back — and she had conceived an idea that the harder that occupation was, the better it would be for her. While pulling down the books, and folding the linen, and turning out from their old hiding-places the small long-forgotten properties of the household, she would be as gay as ever she had been in old times. She would talk over her work, standing with flushed cheek and laughing eyes among the dusty ruins around her, till for a moment her mother would think that all was well within her. But then at other moments, when the reaction came, it would seem as though nothing were well. She could not sit quietly over the fire, with quiet rational work in her hands, and chat in a rational quiet way. Not as yet could she do so. Nevertheless it was well with her — within her own bosom. She had declared to herself that she would conquer her misery — as she had also declared to herself during her illness that her misfortune should not kill her — and she was in the way to conquer it. She told herself that the world was not over for her because her sweet hopes had been frustrated. The wound had been deep and very sore, but the flesh of the patient had been sound and healthy, and her blood pure. A physician having knowledge in such cases would have declared, after long watching of her symptoms, that a cure was probable. Her mother was the physician who watched her with the closest eyes; and she, though she was sometimes driven to doubt, did hope, with stronger hope from day to day, that her child might live to remember the story of her love without abiding agony.
That nobody should talk to her about it — that had been the one stipulation which she had seemed to make, not sending forth a request to that effect among her friends in so many words, but showing by certain signs that such was her stipulation. A word to that effect she had spoken to her uncle — as may be remembered, which word had been regarded with the closest obedience. She had gone out into her little world very soon after the news of Crosbie’s falsehood had reached her — first to church and then among the people of the village, resolving to carry herself as though no crushing weight had fallen upon her. The village people had understood it all, listening to her and answering her without the proffer of any outspoken parley.
“Lord bless ee,” said Mrs Crump, the postmistress — and Mrs Crump was supposed to have the sourest temper in Allington —“whenever I look at thee, Miss Lily, I thinks that surely thee is the beautifulest young ‘ooman in all these parts.”
“And you are the crossest old woman,” said Lily, laughing, and giving her hand to the postmistress.
“So I be,” said Mrs Crump. “So I be.” Then Lily sat down in the cottage and asked after her ailments. With Mrs Hearn it was the same. Mrs Hearn, after that first meeting which has been already mentioned, petted and caressed her, but spoke no further word of her misfortune. When Lily called a second time upon Mrs Boyce, which she did boldly by herself, that lady did begin one other word of commiseration. “My dearest Lily, we have all been made so unhappy —” So far Mrs Boyce got, sitting close to Lily and striving to look into her face; but Lily, with a slightly heightened colour, turned sharp round upon one of the Boyce girls, tearing Mrs Boyce’s commiseration into the smallest shreds. “Minnie,” she said, speaking quite loud, almost with girlish ecstasy, “what do you think Tartar did yesterday? I never laughed so much in my life.” Then she told a ludicrous story about a very ugly terrier which belonged to the squire. After that even Mrs Boyce made no further attempt. Mrs Dale and Bell both understood that such was to be the rule — the rule even to them. Lily would speak to them occasionally on the matter — to one of them at a time, beginning with some almost single word of melancholy resignation, and then would go on till she opened her very bosom before them; but no such conversation was ever begun by them. But now, in these busy days of the packing, that topic seemed to have been banished altogether.
“Mamma,” she said, standing on the top rung of a house-ladder, from which position she was handing down glass out of a cupboard, “are you sure that these things are ours? I think some of them belong to the house.”
“I’m sure about that bowl at any rate, because it was my mother’s before I was married.”
“Oh, dear, what should I do if I were to break it? Whenever I handle anything very precious I always feel inclined to throw it down and smash it. Oh! it was as nearly gone as possible, mamma; but that was your fault.”
“If you don’t take care you’ll be nearly gone yourself. Do take hold of something.”
“Oh, Bell, here’s the inkstand for which you’ve been moaning for three years.”
“I haven’t been moaning for three years; but who could have put it up there?
“Catch it,” said Lily; and she threw the bottle down on to a pile of carpets.
At this moment a step was heard in the hall, and the squire entered through the open door of the room. “So you’re all at work,” said he.
“Yes, we’re at work,” said Mrs Dale, almost with a tone of shame. “If it is to be done it is as well that it should be got over.”
“It makes me wretched enough,” said the squire. “But I didn’t come to talk about that. I’ve brought you a note from Lady Julia de Guest, and I’ve had one from the earl. They want us all to go there and stay the week after Easter.”
Mrs Dale and the girls, when this very sudden proposition was made to them, all remained fixed in their place, and, for a moment, were speechless. Go and stay a week at Guestwick Manor! The whole family! Hitherto the intercourse between the Manor and the Small House had been confined to morning calls, very far between. Mrs Dale had never dined there, and had latterly even deputed the calling to her daughters. Once Bell had dined there with her uncle, the squire, and once Lily had gone over with her uncle Orlando. Even this had been long ago, before they were quite brought out, and they had regarded the occasion with the solemn awe of children. Now, at this time of their flitting into some small mean dwelling at Guestwick, they had previously settled among themselves that that affair of calling at the Manor might be allowed to drop. Mrs Eames never called, and they were descending to the level of Mrs Eames. “Perhaps we shall get game sent to us, and that will be better,” Lily had said. And now, at this very moment of their descent in life, they were all asked to go and stay a week at the Manor! Stay a week with Lady Julia! Had the Queen sent the Lord Chamberlain down to bid them all go to Windsor Castle it could hardly have startled them more at the first blow. Bell had been seated on the folded carpet when her uncle had entered, and now had again sat herself in the same place. Lily was still standing at the top of the ladder, and Mrs Dale was at the foot with one hand on Lily’s dress. The squire had told his story very abruptly, but he was a man who, having a story to tell, knew nothing better than to tell it out abruptly, letting out everything at the first moment.
“Wants us all!” said Mrs Dale. “How many does the all mean?” Then she opened Lady Julia’s note and read it, not moving from her position at the foot of the ladder.
“Do let me see, mamma,” said Lily; and then the note was handed up to her. Had Mrs Dale well considered the matter she might probably have kept the note to herself for a while, but the whole thing was so sudden that she had not considered the matter well.
My dear Mrs Dale (the letter ran)— I send this inside a note from my brother to Mr Dale. We particularly want you and your two girls to come to us for a week from the seventeenth of this month. Considering our near connection we ought to have seen more of each other than we have done for years past, and of course it has been our fault. But it is never too late to amend one’s ways; and I hope you will receive my confession in the true spirit of affection in which it is intended, and that you will show your goodness by coming to us. I will do all I can to make the house pleasant to your girls, for both of whom I have much real regard.
I should tell you that John Eames will be here for the same week. My brother is very fond of him, and thinks him the best young man of the day. He is one of my heroes, too, I must confess.
Very sincerely yours,
JULIA DE GUEST.
Lily, standing on the ladder, read the letter very attentively. The squire meanwhile stood below speaking a word or two to his sister-in-law and niece. No one could see Lily’s face, as it was turned away towards the window, and it was still averted when she spoke. “It is out of the question that we should go, mamma — that is, all of us.”
“Why out of the question?” said the squire.
“A whole family!” said Mrs Dale.
“That is just what they want,” said the squire.
“I should like of all things to be left alone for a week,” said Lily, “if mamma and Bell would go.”
“That wouldn’t do at all,” said the squire. “Lady Julia specially wants you to be one of the party.”
The thing had been badly managed altogether. The reference in Lady Julia’s note to John Eames had explained to Lily the whole scheme at once, and had so opened her eyes that all the combined influence of the Dale and De Guest families could not have dragged her over to the Manor.
“Why not do? “said Lily. “It would be out of the question a whole family going in that way, but it would be very nice for Bell.”
“No, it would not,” said Bell.
“Don’t be ungenerous about it, my dear,” said the squire turning to Bell; “Lady Julia means to be kind. But, my darling,” and the squire turned again towards Lily, addressing her, as was his wont in these days, with an affection that was almost vexatious to her; “but, my darling, why should you not go? A change of scene like that will do you all the good in the world, just when you are getting well. Mary, tell the girls they ought to go.”
Mrs Dale stood silent, again reading the note, and Lily came down from the ladder. When she reached the floor she went directly up to her uncle, and taking his hand turned him round with herself towards one of the windows, so that they stood with their backs to the room. “Uncle,” she said, “do not be angry with me. I can’t go;” and then she put up her face to kiss him.
He stooped and kissed her and still held her hand. He looked into her face and read it all. He knew well, now, why she could not go; or, rather, why she herself thought that she could not go. “Cannot you, my darling?” he said.
“No, uncle. It is very kind — very kind; but I cannot go. I am not fit to go anywhere.”
“But you should get over that feeling. You should make a struggle.”
“I am struggling, and I shall succeed; but I cannot do it all at once. At any rate I could not go there. You must give my love to Lady Julia, and not let her think me cross. Perhaps Bell will go.”
What would be the good of Bell’s going — or the good of his putting himself out of the way, by a visit which would of itself be so tiresome to him, if the one object of the visit could not be carried out? The earl and his sister had planned the invitation with the express intention of bringing Lily and Eames together. It seemed that Lily was firm in her determination to resist this intention; and, if so, it would be better that the whole thing should fall to the ground. He was very vexed, and yet he was not angry with her. Everybody lately had opposed him in everything. All his intended family arrangements had gone wrong. But yet he was seldom angry respecting them. He was so accustomed to be thwarted that he hardly expected success. In this matter of providing Lily with a second lover, he had not come forward of his own accord. He had been appealed to by his neighbour the earl, and had certainly answered the appeal with much generosity. He had been induced to make the attempt with eagerness, and a true desire for its accomplishment; but in this, as in all his own schemes, he was met at once by opposition and failure.
“I will leave you to talk it over among yourselves,” he said. “But, Mary, you had better see me before you send your answer. If you will come up by-and-by, Ralph shall take the two notes over together in the afternoon.” So saying, he left the Small House, and went back to his own solitary home.
“Lily, dear,” said Mrs Dale, as soon as the front door had been closed, “this is meant for kindness to you — for most affectionate kindness.”
“I know it, mamma; and you must go to Lady Julia, and must tell her that I know it. You must give her my love. And, indeed, I do love her now. But —”
“You won’t go, Lily?” said Mrs Dale, beseechingly.
“No, mamma; certainly I will not go.” Then she escaped out of the room by herself, and for the next hour neither of them dared to go to her.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01